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When you think about the major causes of vehicle crashes, you can probably already name two of the three biggest risk factors. Most people who drive understand that intoxicated driving is dangerous, whether the substance involved is alcohol, a street drug, cold medicine or prescribed drugs from a doctor. Thanks to increased public awareness in recent years, more people now understand that distractions on the road can also lead to injury or death.

The third major risk factor for crashes and collisions still gets overlooked by a lot of people. Drowsy driving, which means operating a vehicle when fatigued or exhausted, also results in serious impairment and increases the risk of an injury or death. Some of these people actually fall asleep at the wheel, while others experience issues related to driving while tired. In both situations, everyone on the road is at increased risk of a crash.

How does exhaustion impact your driving ability?

Most people will agree that falling asleep at the wheel is dangerous. You can’t see what you’re doing. You could depress the gas pedal, speeding toward a potential accident. However, sleeping at the wheel isn’t the only risk associated with drowsy driving. Even if you don’t nod off while in control of the vehicle, you won’t be as good of a driver when you’re tired.

Fatigue makes it harder for you to focus on the road and properly analyze what’s happening around your vehicle. You may struggle to remain focused or have trouble paying attention to the task at hand. Distraction, as most people know, can create seriously increased risk for a crash.

Driving while drowsy also increases the amount of time it takes for you to respond. You will have longer reaction times to an animal that crosses the road or a vehicle that stops, merges or turns in front of yours. Exhaustion will also decrease your ability to make a good decision when something happens suddenly while you’re driving. All of those issues combined can put you at severely increased risk of having something dangerous or potentially deadly happen while you’re driving.

How common is drowsy driving?

According to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly one in every 25 adult drivers reported falling asleep at the wheel in the last 30 days. That is a terrifying number. Approximately 4 percent of Americans are so tired when driving that they actually fall asleep while operating a motor vehicle.

As many as 6,000 fatal crashes a year may relate to drowsy driving, but that number is unclear. Drowsy driving remains a seriously under-reported issue, which is why so many people don’t realize the risk it poses to the public.