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Younger drivers more likely to nod off on the road

Friday - 11/9/2012, 9:47am  ET

WASHINGTON - AAA finds younger drivers are more likely to drive drowsy at the wheel than their parents and other older drivers on the road.

The motoring and leisure travel organization found in a recent survey that one in seven of drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 admitted to nodding off behind the wheel at least once in the last year. That compares to one in 10 of all licensed drivers, the research shows.

"This is a timely wake-up call to younger drivers. Research shows that fatigue impairs safe driving, with many symptoms causing drivers to behave in ways similar to those who are intoxicated," said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic's Manager of Public and Government Affairs.

AAA released the findings in preparation of the holiday driving season and a time when many young drivers head home for Thanksgiving break.

American University students in Washington, D.C. say they are not surprised by AAA's findings and that they are aware of the dangers of driving drowsy.

"I've gotten sleepy but I usually just wake myself up and hit myself in the back of the head," says AU student Winchester Eubanks.

"I don't think people judge how tired they are and they know they need to get somewhere really quickly. They have a lot going on so they figure it's not that far to go so they might as well just drive it," says AU student Tina Pepe.

These new findings echo data from a 2010 AAA Foundation study of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash data that estimates that young drivers age 16-24 were more likely, by some 78 percent, to be drowsy at the time of the crash as drivers age 40-59. This earlier analysis also revealed that one in six deadly crashes involve a drowsy driver, making it one of the leading contributors to traffic crashes.

To remain alert and be safer behind the wheel, AAA suggests the following:

  • Get plenty of sleep (at least seven hours) the night before a long trip
  • Avoid traveling at times you would normally be sleeping
  • Schedule a break every two hours or every 100 miles
  • Avoid heavy foods
  • Travel with a companion and take turns driving
  • Avoid medications that cause drowsiness or other impairment

Driving while sleepy or fatigued can significantly impact driving ability, causing slower reaction time, vision impairment and lapses in judgment. Signs to look for include:

  • Trouble remembering the last miles driven or missing exits and traffic signs
  • Difficulty keeping your eyes open and focused
  • Yawning frequently or rubbing your eyes repeatedly
  • Drifting from your lane or off the road
  • Daydreaming or having wandering, disconnected thoughts
AAA urges all motorists to stop driving and find a safe place to pull over if experiencing any of the drowsy driving symptoms.

AAA is also highlighting the risks of drowsy driving in support of the National Sleep Foundation's Drowsy Driving Prevention Week which runs November 12-18. This annual campaign provides public education about the under-reported risks of driving while drowsy and countermeasures to improve safety on the road.

WTOP's Hank Silverberg contributed to this report.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)