Distracted and drunk driving have captured most of the headlines in recent years, but new research released yesterday from AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety finds that drowsy driving is not only dangerous, but prevalent among a high percentage of American motorists.

According to AAA's study, 41% of respondents admitted to having fallen asleep at the wheel at some point, with 10% saying they've done so in the past year. Additionally, more than a quarter of those surveyed admitted they drove despite being so tired that they had difficulty keeping their eyes open in the previous month.

Despite the high number of drivers admitting to sleep-deprived driving, 85% of drivers surveyed felt it was "completely unacceptable" to drive if someone is so tired that they struggle to keep their eyes open. 

AAA laments that many drivers may not always be aware of the effects of fatigue resulting from a lack of sleep. In an effort to raise awareness of the situation, AAA is sponsoring Drowsy Driving Prevention Week , hosted by the National Sleep Foundation, in which it wants all drivers to recognize the seriousness of this dangerous, yet underestimated, driving practice.

"When you are behind the wheel of a car, being sleepy is very dangerous. Sleepiness decreases awareness, slows reaction time, and impairs judgment, just like drugs or alcohol, contributing to the possibility of a crash," says AAA Chicago Regional President Brad Roeber. "We need to change the culture so that not only will drivers recognize the dangers of driving while drowsy but will stop doing it."

A new analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash data estimates that about one in six (16.5%) deadly crashes, one in eight crashes resulting in occupant hospitalization and one in fourteen crashes in which a vehicle was towed involve a driver who is drowsy. These percentages are substantially higher than most previous estimates, AAA says, suggesting that the contribution of drowsy driving to motor vehicle crashes, injuries, and deaths has not been fully appreciated.

"Many of us tend to underestimate the negative effects associated with fatigue and sleep deprivation and, conversely, overestimate our abilities to overcome them while driving," Roeber says. "This data underscores the importance of educating drivers on the simple, yet effective steps they can take to prevent a possible tragedy. Unfortunately, too many drivers have adopted the 'I'm tired, but I can make it' mentality, often to their own peril or to the peril of others."

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