Portrait of funny Asian male driver get bored in his car trapped in traffic jam, tired lazy facial expression gesture
By Mary Van Keuren
Although collecting accurate data on how many people fall asleep at the wheel is no easy task (since it doesn’t always result in an accident), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates drowsy driving causes 91,000 crashes a year and 800 deaths. The following examines drowsy driving from multiple viewpoints, including warning signs, prevention methods, risk factors, and more to help you understand the dangers and what can be done to avoid it.
Who is Most at Risk for Drowsy Driving?
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) defines drowsy driving as “the dangerous combination of driving and sleepiness or fatigue.” Just about everyone has experienced fatigue while behind the wheel, especially during long trips, although some groups are more prone to it than others, including long-haul truckers and For-Hire Vehicle (FHV) drivers, as well as shift workers who work nights or rotate in and out of night shifts, which can upset the body’s circadian rhythm and make driving to and from work a challenge.
Those suffering from untreated sleep disorders are also at risk. If you have sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or another sleep disorder, you are already dealing with the difficulties of interrupted or inadequate sleep. Driving in this condition puts you at risk of drowsy driving or falling asleep at the wheel. According to a study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine conducted in 2019, men struggle more than women to stay awake while driving.
Drowsy driving can happen any time of the day, but it’s most common between midnight to 6:00am. If you are normally asleep during those times, it pays to be extra cautious if you find yourself traveling at night.
7 Drowsy Driving Warning Signs
We all know how drowsiness can creep up on us without us noticing, but there are a few warning signs to be aware of that tell you it’s time to get off the road.
- You find yourself drifting out of your lane or hitting the rumble strips.
- You suddenly notice that you’ve been lost in a daydream.
- You are repeatedly yawning.
- You miss your exit or find yourself lost or confused about where you are.
- You’re having a hard time keeping your eyes open or are blinking repeatedly.
- You can’t remember the last few miles you’ve driven.
- You suddenly notice you’re tailgating the car ahead of you.
If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, you should immediately take steps to alleviate your drowsiness, even if it means pulling off the road to catch a quick nap. Any of those signs are indicators that you’re drifting into microsleep, a condition where you experience short bursts of sleep while doing something else.
If You Get Drowsy While Driving:
- Pull over in a safe place and take a short nap (arguably the best solution). Consider keeping a weighted blanket with you so you can truly snuggle down and sleep deeply. Even a half hour nap should make a huge difference.
- Stop every two hours. Don’t wait until you’re drowsy, it’s a good idea overall, no matter how alert you may feel. When you stop and get out of your car, walk around, stretch or even jog in place to get the blood pumping.
- Take a coffee or energy drink break. Coffee isn’t an ideal stimulant because it only works for a while and then leaves you more tired than before. Energy drinks contain sugar that provide a short-term lift, followed by a crash. But in a pinch, they can stave off drowsiness for the short term.
- Avoid speeding. You may think that if you’re drowsy you should drive faster to get to your destination sooner so you can take a nap, but that’s dangerous and could cause an accident, or at the very least get you a speeding ticket.
10 Ways to Prevent Drowsy Driving
You now know what to do if you feel drowsy during the trip, but what can you do beforehand to prepare? Here are some suggestions.
- When possible, avoid driving during usual sleeping hours, roughly midnight to 6:00am. Drowsiness is also common in the late afternoon.
- Avoid alcohol and cannabis (although this should go without saying when you’re behind the wheel).
- Watch out for prescription drugs that cause drowsiness. Read the labels of anything you take to ensure it won’t interfere with your ability to stay awake.
- Get a good night’s sleep (7-8 hours).
- If you have (or suspect you have) a sleep disorder like apnea, talk to your doctor about how to remedy it and drive safely.
- Know where the rest stops are along your route and keep your eyes open for safe places to stop and take a break.
It pays to be aware of the dangers of drowsy driving. Being able to recognize the signs and knowing what to do when you see them can save you from an accident, a ticket, or worse. It can be frustrating to feel like you need to stop and rest your eyes for 30 minutes, but avoiding drowsy driving can, quite simply, save your life.
Mary Van Keuren is a New York-based freelance writer and editor with 30+ years of experience in academia and with a variety of consumer-oriented organizations. Over the past five years, The Slumber Yard has helped millions of people make purchasing decisions on sleep-related products.