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This week is drowsy driving prevention week, which a public awareness campaign to spread knowledge about the dangers of driving when sleepy. Drowsy driving is a serious problem, but many people underestimate how drowsy they are before they get behind the wheel and overestimate how well they will be able to navigate a vehicle while sleepy. This is especially true for younger drivers, says new research, with 1 in 7 in this age group admitting to nodding off behind the wheel in the past year. In fact, drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving.

The new survey, conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, found that overall 1 in 10 drivers have nodded off in the past year behind the wheel. Drowsy driving is a factor in an estimated 1 in 6 fatal crashed in the U.S., with 1 in 8 crashes resulting in hospitalization. AAA CEO, Peter Kissinger, says that drowsy driving is the largest unrecognized traffic safety problem in the country.

Alex Noel, who was 17 in 2008, learned this lesson the hard way when he was driving back from a homecoming dance late at night. He says that he realized he was overly tired between applying for colleges, playing football, and working but thought little of the fact while driving home. He was about an hour away from his parents' home when he fell fully asleep and was then trapped in his car for three hours before someone realized that he needed help.

You can prevent a needless accident by heeding the following warning signs provided by the National Sleep Foundation and AAA:

  • Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking and/or heavy eyelids
  • Difficulty keeping reveries or daydreams at bay
  • Trouble keeping your head up
  • Drifting from your lane, swerving, tailgating and/or hitting rumble strips
  • Inability to clearly remember the last few miles driven
  • Missing exits or traffic signs
  • Yawning repeatedly
  • Feeling restless, irritable, or aggressive.

You can also use the following tips from the National Sleep Foundation and AAA to make sure you have a safe drive:

  • Get a good night’s sleep before you hit the road. You’ll want to be alert for the drive, so be sure to get adequate sleep (seven to nine hours) the night before you go.
  • Don’t be too rushed to arrive at your destination. Many drivers try to maximize the holiday weekend by driving at night or without stopping for breaks. It’s better to allow the time to drive alert and arrive alive.
  • Use the buddy system. Just as you should not swim alone, avoid driving alone for long distances. A buddy who remains awake for the journey can take a turn behind the wheel and help identify the warning signs of fatigue.
  • Take a break every 100 miles or 2 hours. Do something to refresh yourself like getting a snack, switching drivers, or going for a run.
  • Take a nap—find a safe place to take a 15 to 20-minute nap, if you think you might fall asleep. Be cautious about excessive drowsiness after waking up.
  • Avoid alcohol and medications that cause drowsiness as a side-effect.
  • Avoid driving at times when you would normally be asleep.
  • Consume caffeine. The equivalent of two cups of coffee can increase alertness for several hours.

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