Driving is an activity we take for granted. It is an activity, however, that requires the motorist to fully focus his or her attention on driving since cars are moving at speeds where a split second can mean the difference between a near collision and a catastrophic event.
Most highway safety advocates concentrate on accident factors such as alcohol and texting but drowsy driving is as much a risk to motorists and others on our roadways. Any activity that takes your full attention away from driving is hazardous and driving while drowsy does this as much as texting or being under the influence.
Dangers of Drowsy Driving
It is difficult to measure the extent fatigued driving has on traffic accidents. There are no tests like a breathalyzer or blood test that quantifies levels of fatigue. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put out a study attributing 800 traffic fatalities nationwide in 2013 to fatigued driving, many feel this is vastly under-reported and that as many as 6000 or more fatalities is more accurate.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reports that drivers who regularly sleep only 6 to 7 hours are twice as likely to be in an accident than those who sleep 8 or more hours. An Australian study showed that persons who were up for 18 hours mimicked the impairment level of someone with a BAC of 0.05%. Those who were awake for 24 hours had an impairment level equivalent to 0.08%, the level at which you are legally presumed under the influence.
Certain persons were also more apt to drive drowsy than others. Adult males with children and shift workers topped the list. Also, men fall asleep while driving at a rate twice that of women.
How to Recognize Drowsiness
You know when your energy levels are not up to par but you may continue to work or go about your daily activities nonetheless. Driving, however, becomes too precarious when our attention becomes limited or clouded from alcohol, drugs, texting or falling asleep at the wheel. Here are some signs indicating you are too tired to drive and need to pull over to a safe location:
- Repeated yawning and heavy eyelids
- Missing an exit or turn
- Not recalling the last several miles
- Drifting from your lane
- Falling asleep for an instant
- Difficulty focusing
- Restless feeling
- Not being aware you are driving too slowly
If you experience any of these signs, your brain is already failing to sufficiently focus on the act of driving, putting you and others at considerable risk.
When you fail to get the requisite 7 or 8 hours of sleep per night, you begin to experience:
- Reduced reaction time
- Impaired judgment and vision
- Impaired information processing
- Decreased motivation and vigilance
- Increase in irritability and aggressive behavior—road rage
Not only is driving while fatigued dangerous, you could be held criminally negligent if you chose to drive despite having had little sleep in the past 24 hours and caused a serious or fatal accident.
How to Avoid Driving While Drowsy
You can avoid driving while fatigued if you are proactive in your driving behavior. If you know that you have been experiencing fatigue while driving on a regular basis, you need to get more sleep.
Insomnia and sleep apnea, which is a blockage in your airway while sleeping, can lead to serious medical problems. If sleeping 8 or more hours per night still leaves you exhausted, you should see a sleep specialist.
Other ways to avoid drowsy driving include:
- Avoid drinking before you drive—even one drink can induce drowsiness
- If you are taking a new medication, check the label for warnings on drowsiness
- Do not use any drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine or marijuana before driving as they can cause you to lose focus or engage in risky behavior—and when the effects wear off, you can feel extremely tired
- If going on a road trip, take a short nap beforehand
- Drive with someone else. Switch driving with a passenger if feeling tired or you are experiencing any of the above signs of fatigue. Taking turns every 2 hours can fend off boredom and keep you fresh
- If on a long trip, plan on stops for meals, snacks or even a short visit to an historical or other interesting site
- If alone and you begin to nod off or feel foggy, pull over to a restaurant or other parking area, if open, and take a 20-minute nap. Wait several minutes after you wake up if you feel groggy
- Avoid driving between midnight and 6:00 a.m. These hours are when your body is accustomed to sleeping and depriving yourself of sleep at this time can be hazardous
- Drink coffee or caffeinated beverages. This will improve alertness for a few hours
Like the causes of many traffic accidents, you can avoid behaviors that increase your risk of being in an accident. Simply getting enough sleep, avoiding alcohol and drugs before driving and recognizing the signs of fatigue should be enough to increase your chances of arriving alive.