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If you're planning a big road trip for the holidays, make sure you get plenty of sleep first. A new study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety finds drowsy driving can be as risky as drunk driving. Missing just a few hours of sleep significantly increases the risk of crashing. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you happen to be behind the wheel right now and you skimped on sleep last night, getting less than the recommended seven hours, AAA has calculated your risk of crashing. Here's AAA's Jake Nelson.
JAKE NELSON: So if you sleep only five to six hours in a given night, your risk of causing a traffic crash has been essentially doubled.
AUBREY: That's a lot - a doubling of the risk. Is that a surprise?
NELSON: Yeah, I don't think that people realize how important sleep is to their ability to safely operate a car.
AUBREY: Nelson says crash rates continue to spike with every hour of lost sleep. So if you got only four or five hours, your risk of crashing quadruples compared to drivers who got a full night's sleep. And this means...
NELSON: You are equally as impaired as driving while legally drunk.
AUBREY: Last year, 35,000 people died in car crashes in the U.S., and AAA estimates that about 1 in 5 fatal accidents involves a drowsy driver. The AAA report is based on crash investigation data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It draws on interviews with thousands of drivers involved in police-reported crashes and included questions about how much sleep they got preceding the crash.
Karen Roberts is a nurse in Cincinnati who knows the risks all too well. Years ago after an overnight shift, she crashed while driving home.
KAREN ROBERTS: Never in a million years did I ever think it would happen to me.
AUBREY: Roberts says in the miles before the crash, she was feeling woozy, so she jacked up the volume on the Christmas music she had playing to stay awake. She says she almost stopped to get out of the car and buy a caffeinated drink, but...
ROBERTS: I thought, no, I'm on the home stretch. I'll be home within minutes.
AUBREY: Roberts crossed the double line and struck another driver head on. Both cars were totaled. The driver of the other car walked away with a thumb injury, but Roberts' injuries were much worse, and she still has not fully recovered.
ROBERTS: I have been left with double vision. I have chronic excruciating headaches that I experience.
AUBREY: Given the risks, AAA's Jake Nelson says the bottom line is this.
NELSON: If you have not slept seven or more hours in a given 24-hour period, you really shouldn't be behind the wheel of a car.
AUBREY: And this means lots of Americans may want to rethink their sleeping habits. The CDC says 35 percent of adults in the U.S. usually sleep less than seven hours a night. The good news for drivers, Nelson says, is that you don't need to get that sleep all at once. Naps can help.
NELSON: Taking a 10- to 20-minute nap but not to exceed 30 minutes every couple of hours on a long drive has huge safety benefits in terms of your ability to drive without crashing.
AUBREY: Because once you've dozed off behind the wheel, it's too late. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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