More than a quarter of drivers reported "being so tired they had a difficult time keeping their eyes open" while recently behind the wheel, despite the fact that most consider the practice "somewhat or completely unacceptable," according to a new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The drivers' advocacy group released the national study's results Monday, calling the trend a "significant threat to all road users" and comparing drowsy driving to drunken driving.
Fatigued drivers "may fall asleep for several seconds without even realizing it," said Ragina Averella, a AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman, in a statement.
According to a separate AAA study in 2010, an estimated 17 percent of fatal crashes in the country, 13 percent of crashes resulting in a person being hospitalized and 7 percent of all crashes requiring a vehicle to be towed involve a drowsy driver.
"Many drivers underestimate the risk of driving while extremely tired, and overestimate their ability to deal with it," Averella said. "No matter how good a driver you are, fatigue and lack of sleep will impair your driving abilities."
The study, which surveyed a pool of 2,325 drivers meant to statistically represent the U.S. driving population, found a total of 28 percent reported having a hard time keeping their eyes open behind the wheel in the last month.
Drivers between the ages of 19 and 24 reported driving drowsy the most, with 33 percent reporting doing so in the last month.
The youngest and oldest drivers surveyed, those between the ages of 16 and 18 and those aged 75 and older, reported having driven drowsy the least, with 22 percent of each age group reporting having done so in the last month.
Among all survey respondents, 95 percent said they believe "it is somewhat or completely unacceptable to drive when they are so tired it is difficult to keep their eyes open," while 83 percent said they believe that "drowsy drivers pose a somewhat or very serious threat to their personal safety."
"Many of us are worn out from our jobs and daily responsibilities, yet we downplay our fatigue and stay behind the wheel even when we should stop for a rest," Averella said.
AAA recommends drivers find a safe place to pull off the road if they feel drowsy, schedule regular breaks on long trips, travel with an alert passenger and avoid driving if taking medications that can cause drowsiness.
The group is highlighting the dangers of drowsy driving as part of the National Sleep Foundation's "Drowsy Driving Prevention Week."