Just like drinking and driving and distracted driving don’t mix, drowsiness and driving are a dangerous combo to avoid, too. With millions of Americans suffering from chronic sleep problems and 60% of adult drivers reportedly driving a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year of a 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll, spreading awareness of the dangers of drowsy driving is not something to sleep on.
Here’s what you need to know about drowsy driving and falling asleep while driving, including, what you can do to prevent it within your family of drivers, what the potential consequences could be for drowsy driving, why it’s dangerous, and more.
What is drowsy driving?
Drowsy driving occurs when you operate a vehicle without adequate sleep. It’s also called tired driving, fatigued driving, and sleep-deprived driving. However, it can also be caused by untreated sleep disorders, shift work, or certain medications. Like driving under the influence of alcohol, drowsy driving is a form of impaired driving. While extreme cases may result in the driver falling asleep at the wheel, there are many other issues at hand too. Sleepiness can impair a driver’s alertness, attention, reaction time, judgment, and decision-making and severely increase their chances of crashing. A solid definition of drowsy driving tends to depend on how you define feelings like “sleepy,” “tired,” or “exhausted.”
What are the signs of drowsy driving?
If you, a friend, or a family member are experiencing one of the following symptoms while driving, it may be time to stop and rest. The following signs could end up having dangerous consequences, according to the National Sleep Foundation:
- Heavy eyelids, frequent blinking
- Daydreaming and disconnected thoughts
- Missed exits or traffic signals
- Constant yawning or rubbing eyes
- Trouble keeping your head up
- Drifting from lane to lane, hitting a shoulder rumble strip
- Feeling restless or irritable
Is drowsy driving a big problem?
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the answer is a definite “Yes.” Police cited drowsy driving in at least 91,000 crashes in 2017, reports NHTSA, and these accidents resulted in 50,000 injuries and nearly 800 deaths. These figures, however, are likely significantly underestimating the issue, they note. Crash investigators do their best to look for clues that fatigue may have contributed to driver error, but these clues aren’t always clear.
As researchers and law enforcement officers develop new ways to identify crashes related to drowsy driving, we may begin to see that the issue is much more widespread than initially imagined. The 2009 Massachusetts Special Commission on Drowsy Driving, for instance, used a different research method and estimated that there could be as many as 1.2 million crashes, 8,000 lives lost, and 500,000 injuries due to drowsy driving each year.
Why is drowsy driving dangerous?
Drowsy driving is dangerous because it slows reaction time, impacts good decision-making, impairs information processing, and decreases performance on the road. Sleepy drivers can fail to brake in time or avoid an accident and even veer off the road. Being alert and awake at the wheel is a key component of safe driving, and you should never risk your safety or others if you feel sleepy behind the wheel.
What should you do if you get sleepy while driving?
If you start to doze off while driving, stop driving as soon as possible. Pull into a rest stop or any other safe, well-lit area where you are allowed to park and take a short 15–30-minute catnap to energize yourself before retaking the wheel. While it’s perfectly legal to nap in your car, some states have restrictions on the number of hours you’re allowed to sleep in your car or don’t allow overnight parking. Don’t feel comfortable napping in your vehicle? If time allows it, then consider booking a nearby hotel room so you can get a good night’s sleep before you take on the road again.
How can I prevent drowsy driving?
The best way to prevent drowsy driving? Get enough rest on a regular basis. Sleep is the only preventative measure against the dangers of drowsy driving, says the NHTSA. Do your best to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night, especially before a long road trip. Avoid drinking alcohol before driving, and if you take medications that tend to make you feel sleepy, ask a friend or family member to drive or opt for public transportation. If you must drive, avoid the road during “peak sleepiness periods,” which are midnight to 6 a.m. and in the late afternoon.
“Drowsy driving is more pervasive than we recognize, more commonplace, and we’re all guilty of it,” said Pam Fischer, a former New Jersey highway safety official. “And we have the ability to correct it. The fix is simple: Get more sleep,” he told USA Today.
Tips to Stay Awake While Driving
Getting enough sleep ahead of driving and taking naps in between are the top ways to help you avoid sleep-deprived driving. However, here are some other ways to stay awake while driving, too:
- Follow good driving posture. Slouching in the driver’s seat could make you sleepy!
- Drive with a partner. You can take turns driving, plus alert each other if either of you starts to look sleepy behind the wheel.
- Stay hydrated! Drinking water gives you energy and increases your alertness. Dehydration can lead to tiredness and lethargy.
- Eat healthy foods. A diet low in refined sugar, salt, and saturated fats helps increase energy levels while a diet high in these ingredients can make you tired.