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AAA: Drowsy drivers underestimating sleepiness on the road

In a 150-mile nighttime driving experiment, 75% of participants rated their drowsiness level as low. AAA found they were actually moderately or severely drowsy.

BOISE, Idaho — As Daylight Saving Time begins at 2 a.m. MT on Sunday, AAA Idaho is reminding Gem State residents to avoid drowsy driving. A recent study simulated 150 miles of driving on a highway at nighttime, and the results were "shocking."

19% of drivers admitted to getting behind the wheel while struggling to keep their eyes open in the last 30 days, according to AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety research. 95% of drivers deem driving drowsy as very or extremely dangerous. 

The recent experiment gave participants a monetary incentive for finishing the 150-mile nighttime drive as fast as possible without crashing. Simulated rest areas for a stretch break, nap, caffeine or snacks was available to drivers every 20 miles. 

According to AAA's news release Friday, 75% of drivers that rated their drowsiness level as low were actually moderately or severely drowsy in the simulation. The results were measured based on how long drivers' eyes were closed per one minute behind the wheel. 

When drivers' eyes were closed for 15 seconds or more per 60 seconds, 25% of participants still considered their drowsiness level low. AAA said the results show how often drivers underestimate their drowsiness on the road. 

“The end result of drowsiness can be the same as the misuse of alcohol – serious impairment that puts lives at risk,” AAA Idaho public affairs director Matthew Conde said. “Because they aren’t as alert, sleepy drivers may not attempt to brake or swerve to avoid a crash, which could lead to a collision at higher impact speeds.  Or a drowsy driver may become startled and lose control of the vehicle.  Either way, it’s a recipe for disaster.” 

While many drivers know the scary feeling of feeling tired behind the wheel, oftentimes the desire to reach a destination overtakes the risk. 

Research from AAA shows one in five, or 20%, of fatal crashes reported by police involve drowsy driving. 

To avoid the extreme risk, AAA said traveling at times of the day when drivers are normally awake is recommended. Drivers should also ensure their medications will not impact their ability to stay alert before hitting the road. 

“Caffeine may have a temporary effect, but there’s no substitute for a good night’s sleep,” Conde said.  “Drivers should get at least seven hours of rest before a long road trip, avoid heavy meals while driving, and either take rest breaks every two hours or 100 miles or take turns driving.” 

Roughly 50% of drivers in AAA's recent study completed the 150-mile experiment without taking a break. 39% of participants took one break, and two breaks were taken by 11% of drivers. 

40% of drivers that took a break during the nighttime drive said feeling sleepy was the reason for the stop. 75% of drivers that said they were extremely drowsy still did not take a break.

AAA said drivers must stay alert and slow down, especially in school zones and neighborhoods throughout the Gem State Monday morning. Be aware of students crossing the street or moving between vehicles early in the mornings.

If a pedestrian is hit by a vehicle, the odds of the pedestrian being killed are 66% more likely while traveling at 35 mph than 25 mph, according to AAA.

“Our hope is that drivers will take our drowsy driving research to heart and recognize that they aren’t the exception to the rule when it comes to safe driving decisions,” Conde said.  “Simply put, if you snooze, we all lose.”

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