You tossed and turned all night long despite popping a sleeping pill before going to bed at midnight. Seven hours later, your alarm blares and you groggily pull yourself out of bed. Despite a cold shower and two large cups of coffee, your eyes are still blurry as you get behind the wheel to drive to work.
Sound familiar? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. Drowsy driving is a bigger problem than many people think and could be just as dangerous as drunk driving according to new research.
We’ve put together the sobering statistics on drowsy driving, including some serious signs that you shouldn’t be behind the wheel. Keep reading to get all the facts and some tips on how to stay safe on the road.
Drowsy driving is the dangerous act of getting in the driver's seat when you are tired or fatigued, either due to lack of sleep, medications, shift work, alcohol, or a sleep disorder. Being drowsy can impact your ability to make good decisions, slow reaction time, and make it more difficult to pay attention to the road.
We live in a 24/7 society that prioritizes work, productivity and getting as much accomplished in a day as possible. With long commutes and technology that allows us to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning, many people are not getting the 7-9 hours of uninterrupted rest they need.
For some people who are constantly on the go, trying to drive may be the only time they get to sit down or “relax” from the stressful demands of life. Despite extreme fatigue, caffeine and adrenaline can often mask the symptoms of being overtired and lead people to falsely assume they are okay to drive.
Missing out on even just a couple of hours sleep because of a work or school deadline, new baby or Netflix marathon adds to our sleep debt, accumulating increasing levels of the neurotransmitter, adenosine, in the brain. This chemical is responsible for signaling to our brain that we need sleep. Our biochemical tallying continues to build making us feel drowsy and triggering the urge to rest.
Our natural circadian rhythm controls when certain hormones and chemicals that regulate sleep are released, with peak fatigue occurring in the early morning hours or mid-afternoon (which is also when the most car accidents take place). If our sleep debt continues to build, the physiological need for rest could take over during monotonous tasks like driving.
Many people report “blacking out” or being unaware of falling asleep behind the wheel. A study done by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that only half of the drivers in fatigue-related crashes reported feeling tired before the crashes occurred, and nearly one-quarter reported not feeling drowsy at all.
Circadian disruptions caused by rotating shift work can increase the risk of car accidents with 95% of night-shift nurses reporting being in an accident or having a near miss while driving home from work.
Many people are so used to being tired all of the time that they may not even notice the signs of fatigue. Over half of drivers in fatigue-related crashes may not have even been aware of feeling tired before getting in your car. It’s important to pay attention to these serious warning signs that you are too tired to drive.
Some people may experience “microsleep,” which are brief, involuntary periods of inattention lasting only a few seconds at a time. While these episodes may be as short as 5 seconds, the distance could be over half a mile when driving at highway speed.
Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, temporarily tricking us into thinking we are rested and alert. If you are so fatigued that you cannot stay awake without drinking a cup of coffee, you should probably not be driving.
Temporarily blacking out or losing track of time can be a sign that you are too tired to drive effectively. If your thoughts are continuously wandering, you find yourself daydreaming, or you can’t remember driving the last few miles, you shouldn’t be driving.
It can be tempting to wake up early to get a head start on a long trip or drive through the night to avoid traffic, but both of these could increase the risk for harm. Instead, make it a habit to always start a trip well-rested so you can give your full attention to the task of driving.
Always be sure to check prescription and over-the-counter medication labels to see if drowsiness could occur, or speak to your pharmacist if you are unsure. If you take a sleeping aid, wait at least 7-8 hours before driving to give ample time for the effects to fade.
Accidents are more likely to occur when you are driving solo, so consider carpooling or asking a friend to accompany you on long trips. Having someone to talk to can help to keep you focused and awake.
It is important to take breaks while you are driving, either to have something to eat or to take a quick nap. Even the most alert drivers should pull over for a break every couple of hours.
f you are already on the road and find yourself nodding off, don’t try to stick it out and finish the drive. Stop, call a cab or an uber, and go back for your vehicle once you’ve had some rest.
Some research has found that drinking a small amount of caffeine may temporarily increase alertness. The best strategy is to drink 1-2 cups of coffee, take a brief nap for no longer than 20 minutes, then continue on your trip. (More on coffee naps here.)
Remember our good friend tryptophan that always makes us sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner? Eating a large meal before hitting the road is a bad idea. Instead, eat a light meal and have small, healthy snacks to help keep you alert on your trip.
When it comes to avoiding drowsy driving, prevention is key. Almost all causes of fatigue-related accidents could have been prevented with behavior choices. Unlike impaired driving, there are no breath analyzers for fatigue, but the dangers are just as real.
You wouldn’t get behind the wheel to drive your kids to school after having a few too many drinks, but somehow it seems fine to drive on far too little sleep. We’ve all done it, but now we know just how dangerous it can be. The first step to change is always awareness, so consider yourself informed!
Sometimes fatigue is inevitable – your child is sick, an assignment is due, or you have a medical disorder that prevents you from getting adequate rest. While we can’t always prevent being tired, we can choose not to put others at risk. Be aware of the signs of fatigue, and follow our tips for keeping you and everyone else on the road safe.