Asleep at the Wheel

February 27, 2020

We are a tired nation.  We work way too much, we live at warp speed and we don’t get the recommended amount of sleep each night.  One of the outcomes of that is dangerous driving—drowsiness.  The risk, danger, and often tragic results of drowsy driving are alarming. 


An estimated 1 in 25 adult drivers (aged 18 or older) report having fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days.  And, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries, and 800 deaths in 2013. However, these numbers might be underestimated.


So the question becomes—who is more likely to drive drowsy?

  • Drivers who do not get enough sleep.

  • Commercial drivers who operate vehicles such as tow trucks, tractor trailers, and buses.

  • Business travelers

  • Shift workers (who work the night shift or long shifts).

  • Drivers with untreated sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, where breathing repeatedly stops and starts.

  • Drivers who use medications that make them sleepy.


And what are the warning signs of drowsy driving?

  • Yawning or blinking frequently.

  • Difficulty remembering the past few miles driven.

  • Missing your exit.

  • Drifting from your lane.

  • Hitting a rumble strip on the side of the road.

  • Slow reaction time if you have to brake or steer suddenly.


How do we help prevent this?


First and foremost—get enough sleep!  Most adults need at least 7 hours of sleep a day, while teens need at least 8 hours.  In order to maintain these requirements, you should develop good habits.  Stick to a schedule, talk to your doctor about treatment options for sleep disorders, avoid alcohol during the day when still driving and check which medications have a drowsiness side effect.


Bring a friend--passengers can greatly decrease your chances of falling asleep while driving. Furthermore, a licensed passenger may be able to take over in the driver’s seat if you become sleepy behind the wheel.

Use rest stops—they are designed as safe spaces where you can park your car and, if need be, take a quick nap. Some rest stops will only allow you to remain in the area for up to an hour, but this should be adequate time for a restful nap. 


Manage your caffeine intake--in addition to coffee, caffeine can also be found in a wide range of teas and carbonated beverages. Chocolate is another good source. While caffeine will provide extra energy, it is not an adequate replacement for sleep. 


Chew gum—this exercises your jaw muscles, which can stimulate your senses and increase alertness. This is a good temporary energy source if you are not hungry or thirsty.


Get plenty of fresh air--carbon dioxide can make us feel sleepy, especially in stuffy car interiors. Opening car windows or adjusting the vent controls to bring in outside air can lower carbon dioxide levels and, in turn, reduce the risk of drowsy driving.


Listen to music--the solo driver’s best friend is often the radio. Rather than listening to at a high volume – which can damage your hearing – consider listening to energetic music.


If possible, drive while the sun shines--your circadian rhythm will keep you feeling more awake and alert during the daylight hours. Additionally, sunlight stimulates your brain and extends your reaction time while driving. Natural sunlight is also a source of Vitamin D, which can help you sleep better at night.


Use an app--car manufacturers are currently developing automated systems to help drivers avoid drowsiness. In the meantime, a smartphone app can provide the same service. These apps monitor driver eye activities when the smart device is mounted on the dashboard.


When in doubt, check into a room--if you feel drowsy and there don’t appear to be any rest areas nearby, then you should consider checking into a hotel, motel or other roadside lodging facility. Ask at the front desk if they offer an hourly room rate.  


Remember, it is dangerous and against the law to pull your car onto the shoulder of a freeway or highway in order to sleep.


For more information about drowsy driving, check out the following online resources:  This comprehensive site maintained by the National Sleep Foundation includes facts and statistics about drowsy driving, warning signs and preventative measures, as well as links to books and media on the subject.


Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration: The FMCSA offers a few anti-fatigue tips for commercial motor vehicle drivers. The organization also offers a self-questionnaire about drowsy driving designed for commercial drivers to take before hopping in the driver’s seat.


Centers for Disease Control: The CDC features a page dedicated to ‘Drowsy Driving: Asleep Behind the Wheel’. This information includes stats, prevention methods and links to several government reports and academic journal articles about drowsy driving.


UCLA Sleep Disorders Center: UCLA’s comprehensive guide covers some of the facts, and myths, about the causes and effects of drowsy driving. This information is provided in English and Spanish.


AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety: AAA’s online guide to drowsy driving includes general facts, statistics and a news ticker for breaking stories related to this topic.  


Smartphone Apps: There are smartphone apps available that are designed to help drivers cut down on drowsiness behind the wheel.



Operating these apps generally involve attaching your smart device to the dashboard of your vehicle, while the app scans your eyes and monitors blinking cycles in order to detect drowsy patterns.

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