Tired at the wheel - just as dangerous as driving drunk - FOX 29 News Philadelphia | WTXF-TV

Tired at the wheel - just as dangerous as driving drunk

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We talk about the dangers of drunk driving all the time. But what if we told driving with very little sleep -- sometimes called drowsy driving -- can be just as dangerous as drunk driving.

But you don't have to fall asleep at the wheel in order to put yours and others lives in danger. It's called

micro-sleeping, which can happen with your eyes open, and it's just as dangerous.

We conducted an experiment to give you a glimpse of just how difficult it is to fight off sleep.

You're behind the wheel. You're tired, but you're almost there. You close your eyes for what feels like just a second, but when you open them…

November 9, 2011, on the I-10 near Chandler, a milk tanker rear-ended a fuel tanker sending thick black smoke into the air. The freeway was shut down for hours.

According to DPS, the driver of the milk tanker, a 55-year-old Mesa man, had been on the road for a very long time. Investigators suspect his lack of sleep slowed his reaction time. He died.

DPS cited drowsy driving as the cause of this accident that killed him.

AAA estimates drowsy driving is to blame for one out of every 6 deadly traffic accidents. The Center for Disease Control says one in every 24 drivers admits to falling asleep at the wheel at least once in the previous month.

So we decided to conduct an experiment -- an experiment that required me to stay up all night. And right from the start it's obvious I'm tired.

So to do this experiment I stayed up for 24 hours. I haven't had any caffeine at all. We're going to show you exactly what drowsy driving looks like.

We hit the track at Arizona Motorsports Park, so we're in a safe environment for driving. My two brave passengers are Gerald Fougner, a technical supervisor at the Valley Sleep Center, and photographer Joe Keating. Both admitted they're nervous to get in the car with me.

I feel really out of it, like my brain doesn't work, trying to think is hard.

Who could blame them. Fougner hooked my brain up to a computer. He connected wires to my forehead to the top of my head and the back of my head so he can monitor my brainwaves while I drove.

Even getting the key into the ignition was a bit of a challenge. So we get started.

In the beginning, you can see my brain waves are strong. Notice the dark color and the height of them.

But the longer I drive, the more they change. And the harder it is to keep my eyes open.

"We could tell you were drowsy. We asked you to go that speed of 20 miles per hour. I could feel the times when the gas would go in and out and then the curves would come up and you weren't as focused," says Fougner.

After about 20 minutes of driving, yawning, constant yawning, I just can't seem to stop. You can see my brain waves become smaller and smaller. My eyelids heavier and heavier.

And eventually I'm aware I nodded off a few times during this 40-some minute car ride. But Fougner, who was in the backseat monitoring and taking notes, says I actually nodded off several times.

He refers to it as micro-sleeping, and it can happen while your eyes are still open.

"We're looking for a smaller pattern, as you actually fall asleep there are distinct sleep patterns we look for. In this particular case we didn't let you get that deep into sleep for our safety of course."

We took a closer look at the data.

"See little groups of micro sleep and sometimes that will progress into a full period of sleep."

Each micro sleeping episode I had lasted approximately 2 seconds apiece. Two seconds might not seem like a lot, but to give you a better picture of what it looks like distance-wise.

Three seconds at 75 miles an hour means the entire distance of a football field including end zones.

Being asleep for just a few seconds means driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed.

Fougner points out -- besides being asleep -- there were also moments I was awake but driving with my eyes shut for as long as 10 to15 seconds at a time.

So you can imagine the consequences if we had been out on the road on the freeway. What's scary is it didn't take long at all to run into people who admit to some level of drowsy driving.

"You think you can control the urge but if your brain wants to sleep it will sleep, so the moment you actually feel yourself have heavy eyelids and you think oh I can fight this you most likely cannot," says Lauri Leadley, founder of Valley Sleep Center.

"If you're the type of person who has four hours of sleep Monday through Friday and then you try to make that up Saturday and Sunday that's not going to happen… You are putting your body at risk and others at risk."

You might be thinking what about caffeine, downing an energy drink or some coffee. Well experts say that can only provide a temporary fix.

If you're really tired there's only so much you do to fight it. DPS says it is a very real problem here in Arizona -- and that drowsy driving is something they're seeing more and more often.

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