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Study: 'Drowsy Driving' as Risky as Driving Drunk

You know you're not at your best when you're not well-rested. But being a little off your game when you're behind the wheel can be especially dangerous. A new study found that missing just one or two hours of sleep could double your risk of a car accident, and that getting fewer than four hours of sleep can make you over ten times more likely to crash.

And even if you didn't intend to fall asleep behind the wheel, if you do get into an accident, you could be facing serious criminal charges. Here's a look at "drowsy driving" and the possible criminal penalties.

Driving While Drained

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reports that 35 percent of drivers sleep less than the recommended seven hours per day, and that drowsy driving is a factor in more than one in five fatal crashes on U.S. roadways every year. "Our new research shows that a driver who has slept for less than five hours has a crash risk comparable to someone driving drunk," said Dr. David Yang, the Foundation's executive director. "You cannot miss sleep and still expect to be able to safely function behind the wheel."

Additionally, many states have "fatigued driving" statutes, criminalizing tired driving. For instance, in Arkansas a person can be convicted of fatigued driving if he or she is involved in a fatal accident after having been without sleep for 24 consecutive hours. Under New Jersey law, a driver who hasn't slept for 24 hours is considered to be driving recklessly, the same class of crime as driving while intoxicated. If police can prove you were sleep-deprived and the lack of sleep led to an accident, you could be charged with a crime.

Sleepy Statutes

But drowsy driving convictions aren't easy to prove. As the New York Times reports, proving a driver was asleep at the wheel presents a unique set of evidentiary challenges:

"A blood-alcohol test can show whether a driver was drunk. Skid marks may betray a speeder. And cellphone records will reveal whether someone was texting right before a crash. But drowsiness is a personal and often fleeting state of mind that leaves no permanent record."

It is also difficult to define an objective standard for tiredness: different people also react differently to fatigue, so determining just how tired is too tired to drive is nearly impossible. Perhaps the recent statistics could provide some more clarity on the issue.

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