Most of us underestimate the benefits of a good night’s sleep. We live in a time where being overworked and sleep-deprived are proudly worn as badges of honor. But what many of us fail to realize is that allowing this mindset to become the norm is not only ruining our health, but also killing thousands of our fellow Americans on the road.
Why is drowsy driving dangerous? The statistics are shocking. In 2017 alone, up to 91,000 road accidents were caused by drivers who were sleepy or falling asleep at the wheel. Drowsy driving resulted in 50,000 injuries and 800 fatalities in the same year. Between 2013 and 2017, more than 4,000 Americans died in a fatal motor vehicle crash caused by drowsy driving.
Drowsy driving statistics estimate that 1 in every 25 drivers will fall asleep behind the wheel every month.
What is Drowsy Driving?
Drowsy driving is a form of impaired driving that occurs when someone operates a motor vehicle while excessively sleepy or fatigued. This is attributed to a lack of adequate and quality rest. People who sleep six hours or less every day have been proven to have a greater risk of nodding off while driving, potentially resulting in serious or fatal collisions.
What Happens When You Drive While Drowsy?
Driving while feeling sleepy has been linked to impaired cognition and performance, as well as slower reaction times. This makes it more difficult to quickly apply the brakes or steer in a different direction in an emergency. You are also more likely to make risky decisions that can put you and other people in danger.
Extreme drowsiness can sometimes trigger a brief loss of consciousness called “microsleep,” which normally lasts between four to five seconds. This may seem like an insignificant amount of time, but to put it in perspective, that’s like driving blindfolded for 100 yards at 55 miles per hour. That’s enough to miss important road signs, signals from other vehicles, and crossing pedestrians.
Also, when you’re driving at freeway speeds, those precious seconds can make all the difference between life and death.
Why are Americans Falling Asleep Behind the Wheel?
The two main factors that contribute to drowsy driving are sleep quantity and quality. Sleep experts describe healthy sleep as periods of rest that are free from disturbance and disorders, meet the adequate number of hours, and happen regularly at the appropriate hours.
The average adult requires 7 hours of sleep or more per night. Anything below this can result in excessive sleepiness that can compromise your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) report on morbidity and mortality estimates that 1 out of every 3 Americans are not getting the recommended number of hours of sleep per night.
Who are at Risk of Drowsy Driving?
1. Commercial Drivers
These drivers generally spend extended periods on the road, operating large vehicles such as trucks, trailers, and buses. Some commercial drivers, particularly those who make long-haul trips, may sometimes sleep inside their vehicles during scheduled stops. However, more often than not, sleeping in a vehicle is less likely to produce the same quality of sleep as lying comfortably in a bed at home.
2. Shift Workers and Business Travelers
Working the night shift, taking on irregular shifts, and frequently traveling across time zones can do a number on a person’s sleep cycle. Sleeping while the sun is up or at different hours every day is bound to disrupt and shorten your sleep time.
It can also make it harder for your body to settle into a healthy sleeping routine. This can force shift workers and business travelers to become more reliant on pills and sedatives that may cause residual sleepiness throughout the day.
3. People with Untreated Sleep Disorders
Undiagnosed and untreated sleeping disorders can prevent you from getting good sleep and make you excessively tired throughout the day. These include obstructive sleep apnea, which can prevent you from feeling well-rested despite completing the recommended number of hours of sleep; insomnia, which will keep you from falling asleep altogether; and narcolepsy, which can cause your body to shut down and sleep at random times—making it an extremely dangerous condition to have when you’re on the road.
4. People Suffering from Acute Sleep Deprivation
Students, medical professionals, parents of newborns, and caregivers of sick loved ones are just some examples of people who have no other choice but to stay awake for longer periods of time. They are more likely to suffer from acute sleep deprivation and must avoid driving without proper rest.
Serious Signs that You are Drowsy and Should Not be Driving
- Frequent yawning
- Difficulty keeping your eyes on the road
- Trouble keeping your head up or “nodding off”
- Spacing out and forgetting about driving the last few miles
- Missing road signs and turns
- Inability to maintain your vehicle speed
- Drifting in and out of your lane
What to Do When You Feel Drowsy Behind the Wheel
If you get drowsy while driving, it is best to immediately pull over at a safe location. Take a 20-minute nap while parked at a well-lit rest stop or drink one to two cups of coffee—or do both. Drinking caffeine and energy drinks may improve your alertness temporarily, but it is not a sufficient remedy to sleep deprivation.
You may have heard about techniques such as rolling down the windows, putting the radio on full blast, or cranking up the A/C to avoid falling asleep behind the wheel. Safety experts have deemed these ineffective. If you get drowsy while driving, it is best to rest until you no longer feel sleepy.
Drowsy Driving Prevention
Unlike drunk driving, which can be avoided by eliminating one risk factor (alcohol), preventing drowsy driving requires making changes to your lifestyle.
Thankfully, this risky driving behavior is preventable by following a few simple tips.
1. Make good sleep a priority.
Getting 7 to 8 hours every night is easier said than done. However, like eating well and exercising regularly, it’s recommended to make these lifestyle changes for your own well-being. Start with small, actionable changes like limiting your screen time two hours before bed.
2. Get plenty of sleep before driving long distances.
Waking up extra early on the day of a long trip or insisting on an overnight drive to avoid traffic can have serious consequences. Instead of working against your body clock, plan your trip well in advance and dedicate the day before to relaxing and getting ready for the long drive.
3. Assign a designated driver or an alternate driver.
If you’re not feeling up to it, don’t force yourself to drive—especially if you’re driving alone. If you’re planning to go on a long trip, it’s a good idea to ask one of your companions to be your alternate driver. This way, you can take turns driving and ensure that the person behind the wheel is awake and alert.
4. Check your prescription.
Check the labels of your medication to see if drowsiness is listed as a possible side effect. It is best to ask your physician about the safety of driving after taking medications such as narcotic pain pills, antidepressants, muscle relaxants, and antihistamines.
5. Listen to your body clock.
Our circadian rhythm or “body clock” is designed to dip during certain hours to regulate sleep. These dips typically occur between midnight and 6 am or in the late afternoon. Schedule your trips around these hours to prevent drowsiness on the road.
6. Educate and help other drivers.
If you notice your teen or a co-worker looking exhausted or sleepy, discourage them from driving. Offer them a ride, arrange a carpool, or book a ride-sharing service to help them safely get to their destination.