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During the holiday season, we often find ourselves saying “It’s just a busy time of year.” Between holiday parties and helping kids finish up last-minute school assignments, this is most definitely true. However, if we’re being honest, we’re nearly as busy every other time of the year, too.

When our schedules become jam-packed with activities and obligations, we tend to neglect the one thing we need the most—sleep. While some may believe that needing a little extra caffeine to get through the day is the worst that can happen, a new study reveals that is not the case.

According to AAA, missing just a few hours of sleep significantly increases your chances of a fatal car accident.  In fact, exhaustion is a factor in one in five fatal crashes in the United States. With drunk driving playing a role in one in three crashes, driving while tired isn’t that far behind.

The study also found that missing just three hours of sleep quadruples your risk of a crash. And with 35 percent of adults getting less than the recommended seven hours of sleep a night, this is a significant issue.

The Center for Disease Control found that one in 25 drivers (ages 18 and older) admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel at least once in the last 30 days alone. This has become such a concern that the CDC now has a Drowsy Driving Prevention Week in November to raise awareness for the 21% of fatal crashes drowsy drivers are involved in each year.

Dr. David Yang, the executive director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, explained that a driver who has slept less than five hours has a crash risk comparable to someone driving drunk. While a breathalyzer can determine whether someone has had too much to drink to drive, there is no official test to determine if someone has had enough sleep to drive.

While young men, individuals with children, and those working night shifts are most at risk for drowsy driving, it is something that all of us have fallen victim to. So, what can we do?

1. Know the signs of drowsy driving.

According to the UCLA Health Sleep Center, these are the most common symptoms of drowsy driving:

  • You yawn frequently.
  • You are unable to keep your eyes open.
  • You catch yourself “nodding off” and have trouble keeping your head up.
  • Your thoughts wander and take your focus off the road.
  • You can’t remember driving the last few miles.
  • You are impatient, in a hurry, and grouchy.
  • You end up too close to cars in front of you.
  • You miss road signs or drive past your turn.
  • You drift into the other lane or onto the shoulder of the road.

2. Find a different way home.

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, pull off to the side of the road and arrange another ride. Whether you call an Uber or Lyft, or ask a friend to come pick you up, it’s better to leave your car than to continue the drive home. If none of those options work for you, find a safe place to park your car and sleep for an hour or two. While this may be inconvenient, some drowsy driving cases land the driver in jail, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

3. Educate yourself and others.

While drunk driving and texting while driving are getting a significant amount of attention in the media, drowsy driving isn’t talked about as much as it needs to be. Educate yourself and those around you about the dangers of driving while tired, and if possible, offer yourself as someone they can contact should they feel tired behind the wheel.

While accidents may not be totally avoidable, knowing risk factors can help decrease the number of accidents each year, and keep us all safer on the road.

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