Drowsy driving just as bad as drinking now causing 1-in-5 of accidents
As the upward spiral in the death toll on the roads continues with some horrific crashes last week, the usual warnings are rightly being issued for this Christmas period. Worryingly, drink-driving is coming back, probably because people don't think they are going to get caught. But drink isn't the only factor at play. Socialising this time of year can seriously affect both the amount and quality of sleep we get.
Now a major study has found that sleeping less than five hours a night and then getting behind the wheel is as dangerous as driving while drunk.
Researchers in the US found that drivers, who miss between one and two hours of the recommended seven hours' sleep a night, nearly double their risk of having an accident.
And motorists who miss two to three hours of sleep more than quadruple their risk of having a accident.
"You cannot miss sleep and still expect to be able to safely function behind the wheel," said Dr David Yang, the well-respected executive director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
"Our new research shows that a driver who has slept for less than five hours a night has a crash risk comparable to someone driving drunk."
Meanwhile, the British-based Sleep Council has estimated that a third of us get by on just five to six hours' sleep a night, and that mental and physical problems become more pronounced in those sleeping for less than six hours.
They also found that not sleeping enough may ramp up the "fight or flight" response to stress, releasing hormones that speed up the heart rate and raise blood pressure.
The new study was based on an analysis of a representative sample of drivers involved in 4,571 crashes. Those who were the most sleep deprived, getting just four hours, were 11 times more likely to be involved in an accident. It is thought that people driving while drowsy are responsible for around one in five crashes.
But while 97pc of drivers told the AAA Foundation they view drowsy driving as a completely unacceptable practice that is a serious threat to their safety, nearly one in three admit that at least once in the past month they drove when they were so tired they had a hard time keeping their eyes open.
"Managing a healthy work-life balance can be difficult, and far too often we sacrifice our sleep as a result," said Jake Nelson, director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research for AAA. "Failing to maintain a healthy sleep schedule could mean putting yourself or others on the road at risk."
Symptoms of drowsy driving can include having trouble keeping eyes open, drifting from lanes or not remembering the last few miles driven.
However, more than half of drivers involved in fatigue-related crashes experienced no symptoms before falling asleep behind the wheel.
The AAA says drivers should not rely on their bodies to provide warning signs of fatigue and should instead get at least seven hours of sleep if they are planning on driving the following day.
So there's a pretty clear message out there this Christmas - if you have been out late the night before, drinking or not - don't drive the next day.
Think of how many families have already suffered this year, and do you want every Christmas for ever more to be blighted with a horror story your thoughtlessness has caused?
Go out and enjoy yourself, but plan for the next day. Be sensible.
Additional reporting by Sarah Knapton ©Telegraph