Would you ever get behind the wheel if you knew that you had too much to drink? Would you ever send a text message or post something on Facebook while speeding down the highway? Most of us would say “no” to both of these questions, because we are responsible drivers and we value our own safety.

Now consider this question: Would you ever get behind the wheel after a night of terrible sleep? How about after being awake for around 20 hours? Drowsy driving (also called fatigued driving) is more dangerous than you might realize. Lack of sleep can make us cranky, but it can also dangerously impair our judgment and physical coordination. It can even result in a fatal car accident.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving is the primary cause of at least 100,000 crashes each year on U.S. roads. About 20 percent of Americans surveyed admit that they have fallen asleep behind the wheel. Crashes caused by drowsy driving result in an estimated 1,500 deaths annually.

Just how dangerous is a fatigued driver? Studies have shown that driving after being awake for 17 hours is roughly equivalent to driving with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.05 percent. This is below the drunk-driving threshold of 0.08 percent, but is definitely impaired enough to increase the risk of an accident. If you tried driving after being awake for 24 hours straight, your impairment level would be on par with someone with a BAC of 0.10 percent.

Sadly, a high-profile truck accident was a tragic reminder of just how dangerous fatigued drivers are. Earlier this month, former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Tracy Morgan was among the victims of a six-car pileup caused by a truck driver who allegedly hadn’t slept in 24 hours. One person in Morgan’s limousine was killed. Morgan and two others suffered serious injuries.

To be sure, that fatigued driving accident was exacerbated by the sheer size and weight of the 18-wheeler involved. But no matter what kind of car you drive, fatigue behind the wheel can be injurious and deadly.

The next time you get in the car for your morning or evening commute, take a moment to assess your level of alertness. It could just save your life.

Source: WKYC, “Driving drowsy like driving drunk?” Will Ujek, May 27, 2014