There’s been a lot of talk, especially during the recent holidays, about driving and drinking. But another less discussed cause of accidents and fatalities on the road involves people who are driving tired and fall asleep at the wheel. In a sleep- deprived country like ours, you can bet there are plenty of people driving who shouldn’t be.  Some of those drivers are parents, caregivers and grandparents with kids in the car.

 A new study found that slightly more than 4% of adults admit to having fallen asleep while driving.  Though 4.2 % said they actually fell asleep behind the wheel, researchers say they believe that the real number is much higher because many people don’t remember dozing off.  In 2009, an estimated 730 deadly motor vehicle accidents involved a driver who was either sleepy or dozing off, and an additional 30,000 crashes that were nonfatal involved a drowsy driver. Accidents involving sleepy drivers are more likely to be deadly or cause injuries, in part because people who fall asleep at the wheel either fail to hit their brakes or veer off the road before crashing.

Anne G. Wheaton, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, led a study looking at 147,000 adults in 19 states and the District of Columbia.  Wheaton and her colleagues found that men were more likely to report drowsy driving than women. They also noted that about 1.7 % were in the age range between 8-44 years old while 5% were 65 and older. 

Scientists said that too few hours of good sleep and snoring were independently associated with the likelihood of drowsing driving. Snoring is often a symptom of sleep apnea, which causes intermittent pauses in breathing at night.

Dr. Wheaton noted that people who fall asleep at the wheel may do it so quickly - and briefly - that it fails to register.

"It doesn't mean that you put your head down and start snoring," she said. "You might just close your eyes for a second or two. One of the warning signs is when you have trouble remembering the last few miles that you've driven, or when you miss an exit. It could be because you actually fell asleep for a second."

Fatigue behind the wheel can also cause delayed reactions and poor judgment calls. It’s easier for a person to miss seeing a stop sign or a red light, or simply not realize they have drifted into oncoming traffic.

If you’ve driven sleepy before you’ve probably tried opening a window or turning up the radio in hopes of getting a jolt of energy. Those remedies don’t really work. When you’re very tired – to the point of dozing off- you relax and begin to drift off again.  If possible, the best thing to do is to stop your car and take a short power nap.

Not only does your life, and those with you depend on you being awake and conscious of what is going on around you when you are driving, but other drivers and their families are depending on you too.

The study was published in the latest issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.