Dangers of drowsy driving

Man yawning while driving

I know I’ve done it — driven a mile or two without realizing I was nearly asleep. That presleep phase actually has a name: “microsleep.” It may have been to blame in a deadly train crash in New York in late 2013. Microsleep can last for 20 to 30 seconds. That’s a long time to travel in a car going 60 to 70 miles an hour.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 1,600 people die in sleep-related traffic accidents every year. Forty thousand are injured. Most of the time, these accidents happen because drivers aren’t well-rested when they begin a trip. The Sleep Health Foundation says driving 17 hours without sleep is like having a blood alcohol level of 0.05. Twenty-four hours without sleep is like driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.10. 

The worst offenders are drivers age 25 and under and those who do shift work. Most sleep-related accidents happen at night, although drivers age 65 and older tend to dose off in the afternoon. I can certainly tell when it’s happening to me. My eyes get heavy, I can’t quit yawning, concentrating is hard, and then I suddenly realize I don’t remember the last few miles.

So what do you do when you’re drowsy with “hours to go before you sleep”? I found the following advice on the Sleep Health Foundation website:

Get a good night's sleep before you hit the road. You'll want to be alert for the drive, so be sure to get seven to nine hours of sleep the night before you leave.

Don't be too rushed to arrive at your destination. Many drivers try to maximize the holiday weekend by driving at night or without stopping for breaks. It's better to allow the time to drive alert and arrive alive.

Use the buddy system. Just as you should not swim alone, avoid driving alone for long distances. A buddy who remains awake for the journey can take a turn behind the wheel and help identify the warning signs of fatigue.

Take a break every 100 miles or two hours. Do something to refresh yourself, such as getting a snack, switching drivers or going for a run.

Take a nap. If you think you might fall asleep, find a safe place to pull over your car and take a 15- to 20-minute nap. Be cautious about excessive drowsiness after you wake up.

Avoid alcohol and medications that cause drowsiness as a side effect.

Avoid driving at times when you would normally be asleep.

Consume caffeine. The equivalent of two cups of coffee can increase alertness for several hours.

One of the reasons many state highway departments have added rumble strips on the shoulder of the road is to alert drivers that they’re veering off course. Some cars are even equipped with a detection system that lets you know when you’re driving erratically. But most of the time, it’s up to us to have the good sense to tell when we need to pull over.

Being an hour or two late is not a big deal. It’s certainly not worth dying over. It’s like grandma always told me, “It’s better to get there late than never at all.” Be safe and be rested before you hit the road.

–Jackie Hays