CHICAGO (CBS/WBBM) – Many American drivers are asleep at the wheel — literally. That’s according to a new AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study which found drowsy drivers played a role in nearly 17 percent of fatal crashes. CBS 2’s Mai Martinez reports.

It wasn’t hard to find Chicago drivers who admit they’ve fallen asleep while driving.

“When somebody stopped in front of me, I didn’t stop. I was asleep and smashed into them, and that’s when it woke me up,” said Michael Pawela.

“When I wake up and I’m sitting at a stop light, and everyone’s going around me, I’m like ‘oh my God, what was I thinking?’” said Latoya Brinson.

Pawela and Brinson are not alone. According to the AAA study, which surveyed 2,000 U.S. drivers, two out of every five admitted they had fallen asleep behind the wheel at some point.

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Many drivers say that’s frightening to hear.

“It sheds lights on why a lot of the accidents are happening, outside of texting and everything else,” said Yvette Dupree, who added she had never fallen asleep behind the wheel.

AAA conducted the study to raise awareness of the risks of drowsy driving.

“People just think ‘oh, I just kind of nodded off,’ and almost treat it as a joke, when in fact it’s very, very serious,” explained Beth Mosher of AAA Chicago.

Latoya Brinson admits she used to be like that, until her car was hit by a sleepy driver. Now Brinson says she doesn’t drive drowsy anymore.

“It’s not worth it. Me and my daughter could have both lost our lives,” she said.

And AAA says many have lost their lives. According to their study, drowsy driving contributed to nearly 17 percent of all fatal crashes.

Many drivers say they have techniques to wake themselves up when they get drowsy behind the wheel. Some like to roll down the window to get fresh air. Others prefer to turn up the radio.

Drinking coffee or chewing gum also work for some, but AAA says the best thing drivers can do is get plenty of sleep before they hit the road. But some drivers say that’s easier said than done.

“There’s never enough time, so I think that’s the hard part,” said Ted Chen.

The AAA study also found that younger drivers, ages 16 to 24 were nearly twice as likely to be involved in a “drowsy driving” crash as drivers ages 40 to 59.

AAA suggests pulling over and resting if you get drowsy while you’re driving. And if you’re on a long road trip, they say try splitting or sharing the drive with another driver.

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