Ok, let’s face it. We’ve all had THAT experience driving when we wonder how we actually got to our destination, not remembering that we actually DROVE those miles.
That is driving while drowsy.
A few weeks ago, my family and I put in an 11 hour road trip to Oklahoma. Four days later, we were back in the car driving those 11 hours home. On the way home, I anxiously wanted to drive and allow my tired husband a chance for some shut-eye. However, minutes after getting behind the wheel, I was yawning.
I was exhausted!
After only a few minutes of driving, I found myself turning the A/C on full blast, pointing the fan vents at my face. I started rubbing my arms and legs and turned the radio up. I couldn’t understand why I was so tired after only ten minutes of driving!
It turns out, I was sleep deprived. Late nights and early mornings on a vacation can wear a person out. Add to that, a different bed, different schedule, and multiple daily activities and you’re begging for a good night sleep. I don’t usually sleep well away from home and me getting behind the wheel clarified that pretty quickly. I pulled off the interstate with my tail between my legs and handed my understanding husband the keys.
While reading up on drowsy driving for this post, I learned an eye-opening fact: a drunk driver usually drives too slow. When involved in an accident, the drunk driver will at least brake and swerve to avoid a collision. The drowsy driver who falls asleep at the wheel, on the other hand, might not even brake or swerve, increasing the chances of a more dangerous and deadly collision. Being sleepy reduces our judgement and coordination. Driving is a complex activity that requires a rested mind and body.
Being that so many Americans take road trips in the summer, I thought it would be a good idea to educate you on the hazards of drowsy driving and tips to recognize it.
Risk factors for drowsy driving:
- Being sleep deprived, fatigued, or suffering from insomnia
- Driving cross country or long distances – Stopping for breaks is critical for long hauls, for both your brain and your body.
- Driving at night – Your body naturally knows it’s bedtime when the sun is down so fighting biology is a losing battle, especially the later it gets.
- Driving alone – Not having anyone to talk to will always make long drives harder. Being able to switch drivers from time to time is necessary to prevent fatigue at the wheel.
- Drinking ANY alcohol – Even if you only have one serving of alcohol and are within the legal limits of driving, alcohol is a depressant and is likely to make you more tired.
- Feeling invincible – Let’s face it, rolling the windows down, chugging coffee, and blasting the radio is not going to keep you awake if you are sleep deprived!
- Shift workers – People who work at night or work rotating shifts are more likely to be sleep deficient.
- Males under age 26 – Young males are more likely to take risks and feel invincible (read above).
Symptoms (ways you can tell you’re too tired to drive):
- Heavy eyelids
- Having trouble focusing
- Having difficulty keeping your head up
- Not remembering driving the last few miles
- Yawning or rubbing your eyes
- Drifting from your lane, tailgating, or running over a shoulder rumble strip
- Feeling irritable and/or restless
Prevention and Treatment of Drowsy Driving:
- Get your ideal amount of sleep the night before a long drive (usually 8 hours)
- Stop and nap – If you find yourself drowsy while driving, pull over to take a short nap of 20 minutes. Be sure to nap in a safe location.
- Switch driving with another person about every 2 hours – Try to nap (or at least rest) while the other person drives.
- Do not drink ANY alcohol – Enough said.
- Don’t drive between 12am – 6am – Our body’s biological clocks want to sleep when it’s dark so don’t try to fight it.
- Drink caffeine – This is recommended to improve alertness only if you’ve gotten an adequate amount of sleep the night before, as the effects will wear off after a couple of hours.
Also, it’s important to realize that our body doesn’t only want to sleep at night, but also in the mid afternoon. Our natural circadian rhythms, or body clocks, create the strongest need to sleep around 2:00 – 4:00 am and 1:00 – 3:00 pm. Despite being naturally tired at this time, this feeling is not as intense if we’ve had sufficient sleep. (This is also why we reach for another cup of coffee an hour to two after lunch!)
When in doubt, it’s always better to pull over, get some rest, and resume driving later. If your family is in the car, think about the risks you take with them in the car and a drowsy driver at the wheel. Think about all those other people on the road with you too – we all have loved ones, homes, and just want to get to our destination as well. No one wants to become a statistic.
If you’re looking for more information on drowsy driving, check out DrowsyDriving.org.
Drive safe and drive smart! We’re all counting on each other to do so.