Anyone who has driven for hours on a long road trip has considered the dangers of falling asleep behind the wheel. But according to recent studies, extreme driver fatigue can be as dangerous as driving after drinking—and in many cases, a driver can cause an accident without ever fully losing consciousness.
What Is Drowsy Driving?
“Drowsy driving” encompasses a wide range of symptoms and behaviors, and goes far beyond simply falling asleep at the wheel. A driver who has not had proper rest or has spent extended time behind the wheel may become both physically and mentally fatigued, suffering multi-second lapses in attention (called microsleeps) that increase the odds of losing control of the vehicle.
A person who is fighting the effects of sleep can suffer many of the same impairments as a drunk driver. This includes shortened reaction times, vision problems, engaging in aggressive behaviors (such as speeding and tailgating), memory problems, reduced alertness, concentration and attention deficits, and poor judgment.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drowsy drivers are twice as likely to make errors while driving than drivers who are fully alert. NHTSA data also revealed that over 7,000 people have been killed in drowsy driving-related accidents in the last decade, but the actual number of crash victims is considered to be much higher, since fatigue does not leave conclusive physical evidence at a crash site (unlike drug or alcohol use).
Who Is Most Likely to Cause a Drowsy Driving Accident?
While drowsy driving crashes can occur at any time, they are most common in the late afternoon and between the hours of midnight and 6:00 a.m. During these hours, the human body experiences a natural period of relaxation due to the body’s internal sleep regulation system, the circadian rhythm. Disturbances in sleep cycles are the most prominent cause of these crashes, placing the following groups most at risk:
- Male drivers between the ages of 17 and 29 years old.
- Employees who work second-shifts and overnight shifts, or workers with irregular schedules that do not allow for a full night’s sleep between shifts.
- People who suffer from sleep disorders (including insomnia, sleep apnea, or narcolepsy).
- Drivers who routinely get less than six hours of sleep per night.
- People who use prescription sleep aids or over-the-counter medications that cause drowsiness.
How to Avoid Falling Asleep Behind the Wheel
The most effective way to combat drowsy driving is to get seven to eight hours of sleep each day on a regular basis. Your brain and body needs sleep to work properly, and while you can temporarily fight the effects of drowsiness with food or caffeine, there is no real substitute for sleep. If you are going to be behind the wheel for a significant period of time, there are some other ways you can prevent a drowsy driving crash, including:
- Get a copilot. Decide which person will be driving on the trip, and which shifts he or she will take. If your copilot falls asleep in the passenger’s seat, wake him or her up at least 20 minutes before he or she begins driving.
- Check your kids. If a teenager will be driving, make sure he or she is properly rested and has demonstrated good driving judgment in the past.
- No drinking. Any amount of alcohol will have a depressive effect on a driver and dull his senses, including cough syrups and other cold medications. If you are driving, it is best not to drink at all.
- Read labels. If you take any medications that may cause drowsiness, do not take them before driving.
- Pull over. If you start to notice warning signs of drowsiness, such as increased blinking, yawning, or straying outside the lane, exit the highway or pull over as soon as you can. Change drivers immediately, or if you are alone, find a place to pull in for a 15-minute nap.
Do you know someone who works late shifts or always drives during the night? Share this article with your friends on Facebook to make sure they are prepared for the subtle dangers of drowsy driving!