All of us have experienced this at some time or another. If you drive a vehicle, you are probably familiar with the sleepy feeling that may cause your eyelids to droop and you find it difficult to focus on the road. This is especially true if you’re driving long distances or too late into the night. Long drives can be quite boring. The white noise of your vehicle’s tires and the unexciting scenery only add to the road fatigue causing you to feel drowsy and sleepy.
Characterized by slow reaction times and lapses in attention, drowsy driving can be very dangerous. Driving when you’re sleepy is as dangerous as when you’re driving intoxicated or have taken drugs.
According to a study in a British journal, researchers discovered that drowsy driving has the same effects as drunk driving and after being awake for around 17-19 hours, people who drove performed worse than individuals with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%.
You can’t really prevent yourself from falling asleep while driving and you may not even realize that you have dozed off. And, trying to push yourself to drive by ignoring the feeling will only make it more dangerous.
Hazards of Drowsy Driving
As mentioned earlier, drowsy driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving can reduce key functions that are necessary for safe driving such as:
- Accuracy of eyesight
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Reaction time to lights and sounds
- The ability of the eyes to adjust to the darkness
- Ability to judge speed
- Depth perception
How to Recognize That You’re Too Tired to Drive
According to the National Sleep Foundation, here are some signs to look out for that may be a warning that you’re too tired to drive:
- Heavy eyelids and rubbing your eyes often
- Yawning frequently and uncontrollably
- Wandering thoughts, difficulty in focusing or daydreaming
- Not remembering driving the last few miles
- Your head falls to one side or starts to tilt
- Drifting across lanes or hitting the rumble strip
- Failing to take the correct exit
- Misunderstanding traffic signs
- General irritability
Tips on How to Stay Awake While Driving
If you feel drowsy and find that you’re falling asleep at the wheel while driving, in this article, we have discussed a few tips and tricks of how you can combat sleepiness and stay alert when driving. So, read on…
Get Good Pre-Drive Sleep
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that you get around 7 to 8 hours of sleep before driving. Nothing can substitute a full night’s sleep before you set off on a long drive. If you don’t have sufficient sleep, you are prone to microsleeps that cause temporary lapses in focus, which can be very dangerous. The key is to plan ahead and ensure that you get a good night’s sleep and are well rested before you embark on your journey.
However, if getting a long duration of rest is not possible, then take a nap for around 15-30 minutes at least before driving.
According to a study, even a short nap will help you get the REM sleep and short-wave sleep required to feel refreshed, rejuvenated and alert. A pre-drive nap can work wonders for your mental state when you’re driving.
Take Regular Breaks
A very important thing while you’re driving long distances is to make sure to take regular breaks. Park your vehicle and relax. Get out of your vehicle, do some stretches and take a short walk. This will help to stretch your limbs and also increases the blood flow, boosting your alertness and ability to concentrate. This will also help to prevent muscle aches and back pain because of prolonged sitting while driving. While driving, try and sit upright and move your position regularly to avoid any strain.
Have Some Caffeine
Caffeine is the most common and popular stimulant in the world, which can help to increase your concentration, focus and alertness and help you to stay awake on the road while driving.
When you drink a beverage with caffeine, the adenosine receptors in your brain get blocked, which helps to fight the sleepiness you’re experiencing. The stimulant boosts metabolism and triggers the liver to release glucose, which keeps your mind awake. Caffeine is a diuretic, which will also increase your bathroom break stops, which will give you the much necessary break in your drive and allow you to stretch as well.
However, since caffeine is a diuretic, you must take care to watch your caffeine consumption because if consumed in large quantities, it can cause dehydration. So, you must ensure that you drink a lot of water and be well hydrated to prevent dehydration-induced tiredness or fatigue while driving.
Eating the right kind of food can help you to stay alert while driving for long hours. Do not drive on an empty or full stomach, both these conditions will hinder your performance.
Eat healthy meals such as complex carbs and lean protein such as chicken or turkey. Eat healthy snacks like trail mixes, salads, etc. These are not only nutritious but will also provide an energy boost. Avoid eating heavy and oily food during your trip because this will only make you drowsier.
Avoid Unhealthy Snacks
While carbs and sugary snacks and beverages can give you a temporary boost of energy, however, the insulin spike that follows can make you feel even more tired and fatigued while driving. To avoid the carb crash, eat a healthy snack, salad or a banana, which will provide a slow energy release instead of a sudden spike.
When you are sleep deprived, typically ghrelin, the hunger hormone gets ramped up, which makes you crave for sugary snacks or drinks. However, it is best to stay away from the temptation and avoid these unless you want a boost to get you through the final leg of your journey.
Take Power Naps
Taking short power naps can help you feel refreshed and alert and also helps to improve your mood. It is recommended that on longer trips, you should take a power nap every 4 hours at least. However, according to the NHTSA, you should keep your nap short, to around 10 to 20 minutes. Otherwise, your body will go into deeper sleep causing sleep inertia, which can make you feel even drowsier when you wake up.
Avoid Natural Low Points
You must plan your journey or adjust the driving times so as to avoid the biological low points of your body that are determined by your circadian rhythm. Generally, these are between 1 pm to 3 pm and 2 am to 5 am. Planning your drive during the night can help you avoid the traffic; however, it is not a great way to prevent the hazards of drowsy driving.
Drive along with a Friend
When you’re driving long distances, a quick power nap can help to keep you going. However, if you don’t want to stop while you nap, you could consider taking along a buddy when you’re going on a road trip or for a long commute so that he/she can converse with you and keep you entertained and if you’re feeling sleepy, your friend can take over the driving.
This strategy is commonly used by long-haul drivers, especially those driving cross country for more than 12-15 hours a day. So, if you live close to a colleague you work with or have any family members or friends who are also going wherever you’re driving to, this is a great approach.
Keep Your Mind Engaged
Listening to your favorite music while you drive can help you to remain focused and alert. Play songs that you can sing along with, as this will help to stimulate your brain or put on some energetic music that will keep you awake.
Studies show that music is linked to mental awareness and can help you stay focused on driving and the road, whether it is classical, folk, funk, rock, country or metal. If you want to do something different, you could listen to a podcast or an exciting audiobook that can help to keep you mentally fresh.
Take a Break in a Well-Lit Area
Taking a break in a bright and well-lit area for a few hours just before your regular bedtime can help you to feel refreshed and alert. Just before you sleep, your body releases melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleepiness when the body prepares to go to sleep.
Bright lights, mobile phone screens and incandescent bulbs can suppress the release of melatonin. So, taking a break in a service station or pitstop that is well lit when it becomes dark, 1-2 hours before your normal bedtime can help to delay your tiredness and sleep.
Keep Your Brain Occupied
Keeping your brain occupied can help you stay alert while driving. This can be as simple as making a phone call; however, if you’re doing that make sure to use your hands-free device. Having a conversation can keep your brain stimulated and you awake. You can play road trip games such as the license plate game, counting cars, etc. By keeping your mind active and distracted you can prevent it from getting into a relaxed state, which occurs just before you go to sleep.
Avoid Alcohol Consumption
Avoid consuming any alcohol before a trip or while driving because alcohol is a sedative and any amount can make you drowsy. If you have a long drive ahead of you, then don’t consume any alcohol on the day you’re driving or even the night before. Drinking alcohol prevents your body from entering into the vital REM sleep, which means that you will not be well rested and relaxed before your trip.
Avoid Driving While Taking Medications
Avoid driving if you’re taking certain medications that cause drowsiness. Sleeping pills, allergy medicines, analgesics and psychoactive drugs can cause drowsiness and reduced attention, which can cause microsleep or drowsy driving, which can be dangerous.
If you’re not sure about the effect of certain medication, speak to your doctor before taking them and driving. Also, if you suffer from medical conditions such as a sleep disorder or chronic fatigue, then make sure to consult your doctor before driving.
Short-Term Fixes to Stay Awake While Driving
- Eating candy will provide you with a quick energy boost while driving; however, the blood sugar level will drop quickly too, causing you to feel even more tired. So, this is simply a short-term quick fix.
- Just like candy, coffee and energy drinks provide an initial lift; however, the tiredness returns soon.
- Chewing gum can help to stimulate the blood circulation in the brain and helps to reduce the sleep deprivation symptoms temporarily.
- Opening the windows of your vehicle will help to create an airflow and the blast of cold air is a great short-term fix to reduce tiredness. However, this wears out very fast, making it a temporary fix.
- Playing music loudly can help, but briefly. However, you must keep in mind that when you are tired and sleepy, you are generally less receptive to your surroundings and this will not be improved much by turning on your music system on full blast. Also, this is not good for traffic safety.
As discussed earlier, drowsy driving can be as hazardous as drunk driving and every year, more than 72,000 accidents occur because of drowsy driving. Just 1-2 hours of missed sleep can increase the risk of a crash significantly. As a driver, the most responsible thing that you can do is to stay awake at the wheel while driving and focus on your surroundings.
It is extremely important not to drive when you’re tired, sleepy, rushed or angry because this can lead you or some other person to get injured or even worse. You can try some of the strategies that we have discussed in our article that can help to keep your alert and awake while you drive.