When Not Getting Enough Sleep Turns Deadly

New Nat Geo documentary, "Sleepless in America," says we're more sleep deprived than ever, which can have serious consequences.
3:00 | 12/10/14

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Transcript for When Not Getting Enough Sleep Turns Deadly
It's the surprising common thread thought to be behind some of the worst disasters in recent memory. Sleep deprivation. Nearly half of all Americans aren't getting enough and the consequences can be serious. Tonight, new evidence that even if you seem wide awake, your brain might tell a different and potentially dangerous story, as ABC's Ron Claiborne found out first-hand. Reporter: It was the first time we had seen Tracy Morgan walking. How is your recovery coming, and -- I'm fighting every day. Reporter: Since the traumatic accident that left the "30 rock" star critically injured when Kevin roper crashed into his limo. An alleged cause of the accident? Lack of sleep. A criminal complaint says roper had not slept in more than 24 hours. He pled not guilty to criminal charges. The accident caused a moment of recognition in our sleep deprived nation, where experts say we now get two hours less sleep every night, leading to increased rates of diabetes, cancer and, of course, sometimes fatal accidents. It's a tragedy that Ben Howard and his daughter know all too well. I got a call from my friend telling me that there had been a serious accident, right here on the side of the road, my family died. I lost my wife, my son and my daughter because someone was behind the wheel who had not had enough sleep. Reporter: This accident is one of 100,000 reported automobile crashes attributed to sleep deprivation that occurs every year. A driver crossed all of these lanes, all four lanes of traffic, where they hit the car head-on. We came to understand that this person had worked for a medical facility and that they'd been up for a very long time. It was drowsy driving. Reporter: According to nat geo's new series with the national institutes of health, 40%le of adults are sleep deprived. We tend to be really really good that infants, babies around children get enough sleep. Once we become adults, that falls by the way side. Most adult Americans need to get between seven and nine hours of sleep every single night. A tired driver, that's the primary cause of that horrific tour bus crash that killed 15 people. Reporter: And the consequences that result from too little sleep can be catastrophic, as the nat geo doc points out, experts believe that sleep deprivation may have played a role in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The three mile island nuclear meltdown. And, most recently, in the dramatic derailing of a Chicago train. According to the national traffic safety board, the conductor admitted to falling asleep. It is far from ideal for someone to be operating heavy machinery or driving a car or a bus when they are sleep deprived. It is driving while sleeping that is especially harrowing. You fall asleep for just a few seconds, sometimes would even realizing it. I volunteered to be the Guinea pig in an experiment to see how I would be affected driving without enough sleep. I'm going to be up all night. First, I stay up for 32 consecutive hours. Hi, Claiborne. Then I traveled to the institute outside Boston where they study the effects of sleep deprivation on driving. I was hooked up to a device that tracks eye movement. I feel okay now. But not great. Then, I started driving on a closed track. With a researcher sitting next to anyway could step on an emergency brake. I'm feeling pretty worn out. Soon, I was becoming sleepier and sleepier. It became a struggle to keep my eyes open and just to hold my head up. Before long, I was experiencing microsleep. I look like a Normal awake driver, but what you can't tell is that my brain is actually asleep. About half an your, it became more obvious. I had fallen asleep at the wheel and driven completely off the road. That was not good. I soon realized I just couldn't go on. I'm done. Put it in park. Reporter: Good idea. It was just too dangerous. That was tough. Back in the lab, Dr. Sizer showed me just what was going on inside my brain while I was driving. This is evidence that you're falling asleep. Reporter: See how these lines are becoming more jagged? That's sleep coming on. And these lines show my blinking is getting slower what about when I drove off the road? We could see it coming. Reporter: Looking at the chart here, how long was my microsleep in this one episode? So, in this one episode, we're talking about one, two, three, four, five or six second seconds. Reporter: What was most shocking, Dr. Sizer said, I fell asleep, I microslept, 21 other times. You had dozens of times where your eyes began rolling around. Reporter: I didn't remember a single time. Just think what could have hatched if I was on the open road. But beyond this, there are less obvious risks to your health that can be caused from lack of sleep. Alzheimer Alzheimer's, obesity, heart disease, cancer and even death. So, with our health on the line, how do we get enough sleep? Take a good look at your bedroom. Pinpoint issues that may be disrupting your sleep environment. So, this could be anything from noise to light to temperature. People need to unplug from all their electronic devices. Ideally, an hour before they close their eyes and go to sleep. As a society and a culture, we need to stop looking at sleep like a luxury and start viewing it as a necessity. Reporter: But with all the distractions and stress of modern life, that's easier said than done. For "Nightline," I'm Ron Claiborne in New York. The full documentary "Sleepless in America" is available online at natgeotv.com. Next, Rosie Perez reacts to

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