As someone who has had long commutes in past jobs, I know what it’s like getting off work and battling your drowsiness on your drive home. An eight-hour day, or a ten-hour day, combined with an hour or more commute each way, means you may have little time for sleep once family and household responsibilities are done. Many commercial vehicle drivers drive very long shifts, increasing the risk of sleepiness. Night shift work can exacerbate drowsiness too.
When the statistics are added up, 60 percent of drivers have driven while drowsy in any given month. That’s 168 million of us.
Drowsy driving causes accidents
But drowsy driving causes a lot of accidents. Thirty-seven percent of us have actually fallen asleep while driving. Yes, 103 million Americans have fallen asleep at the wheel. Four percent of these have had an accident due to drowsy driving.
Drowsy driving accidents cause 72,000 collisions and 800 fatalities every year. In fact, though, the U.S. government believes that drowsy driving as a cause is underreported. Many people don’t identify it as the cause of their accident. In addition, drowsy driving is not as widely known as drunk driving as a cause of crashes. The real number of fatalities in which drowsy driving plays a role may be closer to 6,000 per year.
The crashes happen to everyone, but patterns emerge. Fifty-five percent of drowsy driving accidents happen to drivers who are under the age of 25. Men are nearly twice as likely as women to fall asleep while driving. Statistics show 22 percent of men have, versus 12 percent of women. Drowsy driving collisions are more likely to happen very late at night or very early in the morning.
The problem is, being drowsy while you drive means you aren’t driving at peak performance. According to studies, eighteen hours without sleep impairs drivers just as much as having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08. It slows down reaction times. It makes drivers less alert. It makes them more likely to take less notice of changes in traffic patterns and signs.
How do you know?
If you think you or a loved one is at risk for drowsy driving, watch for the signs. The first sign is obvious— you’re very tired when you drive! Surprisingly enough, drivers honestly may not notice drowsiness. It may have become habitual. They may be masking it with caffeine. Or, drivers may ignore signs of tiredness in order to make a destination or keep on working.
But there are tell-tale signs. If you yawn or blink a great deal while driving, you’re drowsy. If you can’t remember the last few minutes, you may have even fallen asleep. Several signs involve failure to do things— missing an exit or staying in a lane. If you drift between lanes or hit the outside rumble strip, you may be drowsy and gradually nodding off. And that’s a situation just waiting for an accident.
What to do
What do you do to avoid drowsy driving? I’ll offer my advice for waking yourself up before you get on the road and what to do if you feel yourself starting to slip while driving. However, if you are about to start driving and feel utterly exhausted, my advice is always going to be the same: don’t drive.
The first method of combatting drowsy driving is to get enough sleep. Let’s face it—adults need a minimum of seven to eight hours a night. If you have difficulty sleeping, there are methods to increase your ability to fall asleep. Stick to a schedule if at all possible. Our bodies will adjust to anything, but they will drop off to sleep more readily if they are used to roughly the same time every night.
If noise or light through the window is a problem, wear earplugs and eyeshades. Really. They work, especially once you get used to them.
Warm milk and a few minutes with soothing music or a restful book are also tried-and-true methods. Give them a try. Plus, while caffeine may be your friend if you drive a lot, it certainly will not help you sleep. Try to leave at least a few hours between your last cup and bedtime.
The second method is to fight drowsy driving during your drive time. Don’t try to tough it out if you feel sleepy as you’re driving. Pull over and take a 15- to 20-minute nap. If you feel sleepy beforehand, a predrive nap will work too.
Many people feel listening to lively music as you drive works well. A cup of caffeine, while not advisable before bedtime, will banish drowsiness for a while. Be careful though—the effects will wear away and leave you tired as ever. If you drive with a friend, chatting may help keep you awake. If your car has a hands-free calling feature, you can call a friend to chat with in order to keep yourself awake.
Drowsy driving is a serious problem on the nation’s roads, causing injuries and deaths every year. A very high proportion of Americans have driven while drowsy. The solution is to be aware of the signs of drowsy driving. Get eight hours of sleep at night. Eliminate driving while drowsy with naps, music, caffeine and chatting if possible. Ultimately, if you can’t keep yourself awake, you need to get off the road.