You’re two-thirds of the way through a trip from your home on Long Island to Grandma’s place outside of Boston. You and your spouse decided to drive at night so the kids would sleep through the trip — but alas, they are on their third viewing of Frozen in the back seat right now, and it’s starting to make you a little crazy.
So it’s no surprise to you when you find yourself lulled into a sort of stupor by the combination of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” and the sight of the endless dotted lines on the highway whirling past. Suddenly you’re jerked awake as you hit the rumble strip and steer quickly to get back on the road. Whew—that was a close call!
Even though you make it safely to grandma’s house, you’re shaken by the drowsy driving experience, which impacts roughly 1 in 25 drivers a month. Although it’s difficult to collect accurate data on falling asleep at the wheel, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that it is the cause of 91,000 crashes a year — 800 of which result in death.
And even though Americans have been driving less in the pandemic, research shows that we’re having more accidents and driving more recklessly — including driving while we are exhausted or sleep-deprived.
In this article, we’ll take a look at drowsy driving from multiple viewpoints: warning signs, prevention methods, risk factors, and more to help you understand the dangers of falling asleep at the wheel and what you can do to avoid it. Read on to find out what some of the latest research shows about drowsy driving and how you can keep yourself and your loved ones safe from this driving behavior.
Who Is Most At Risk For Drowsy Driving?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowsy driving is “the dangerous combination of driving and sleepiness or fatigue.” It can affect anyone, and just about everyone has experienced the feeling of fatigue behind the wheel — especially during long trips.
Some groups, however, are more prone to it than others. If you fit in one of these categories, you may be at a higher risk for drowsy driving.
- Professional drivers: long-haul truckers and others who drive professionally may experience drowsy driving when they’ve been on the road for hours without a break. Federal regulations limit the hours per day that an interstate truck driver can be on the road to 11 a day, with a ten hour break before they can drive again.
- Shift workers: nearly 15 million Americans work nights or rotate in and out of night shifts. This can upset the body’s circadian rhythm, and make driving to and from work a challenge.
- Those suffering from untreated sleep disorders: if you have sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or other sleep disorders, you are already dealing with the difficulties of interrupted or inadequate sleep. Driving in this condition puts you at risk of drowsy driving or falling asleep at the wheel.
- Young drivers: high school and college students don’t have the years of experience behind the wheel that older drivers do, and they often work long hours, studying and holding down a part-time job at the same time. Driving home after an all-nighter to work or study can be a recipe for disaster.
- Male drivers: a study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in 2019 clearly indicated that men struggle more than women to stay awake while driving.
Others who should be aware of the dangers of drowsy driving include individuals who drive for rideshare companies such as Uber. In fact, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) released a position statement in 2018 cautioning rideshare drivers to be alert to the public safety risk they cause when they drive while sleepy.
Drowsy driving can happen any time during the day, but it’s most common during the night, from midnight through 6 a.m. If you are normally asleep during those times, it pays to be extra cautious if you find yourself traveling at night.
7 Drowsy Driving Warning Signs
So how do you know if you shouldn’t be driving due to sleepiness? We all know how drowsiness can creep up on us without our noticing, but there are a few warning signs that should have you aware of the need to get off the road.
- You find yourself drifting out of your lane or hitting the rumble strips.
- You notice suddenly that you’ve been lost in a daydream.
- You are repeatedly yawning.
- You miss your exit, or find yourself lost or confused about where you are.
- You’re having a hard time keeping your eyes open, or are blinking repeatedly.
- You can’t remember the last few miles you’ve driven.
- You suddenly notice that you’re tailgating the car ahead of you.
If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, you should immediately take steps to alleviate your drowsiness, even if it means you need to pull off the road to catch a quick nap. Any of those signs are indicators that you’re drifting into microsleep, a condition where you experience short bursts of sleep while doing something else.
If You Get Drowsy While Driving It’s Best To:
- Let a friend take over the wheel. If you’re driving with a companion, they can help drive while you close your eyes and rest. Switch off every two hours or so.
- Pull over in a safe place and take a short nap — arguably the best solution to drowsy driving. Consider carrying a weighted blanket with you in the car so you can truly snuggle down and sleep deeply. Even a half hour nap should be enough to refresh you.
- Stop every two hours. Don’t wait until you’re drowsy for this tip — it’s a good idea whenever you’re on a long trip no matter how alert you feel. When you stop, get out of the car, walk around the parking lot, stretch, or jog in place.
- Take a coffee or energy drink break. Coffee isn’t an ideal stimulant, because it only works for a while and then leaves you more tired than before. And energy drinks contain sugar that provide a short-term lift — followed by a crash. But in a pinch, they can stave off drowsiness for the short term.
- Avoid speeding. You may think that if you’re drowsy you should drive faster so you can get to your destination sooner and take a nap — but that’s dangerous thinking that could cause an accident, or at the very least get you a speeding ticket.
10 Ways To Prevent Drowsy Driving
Let’s say you’re planning a long trip and want to be sure that you’re alert at the wheel at all times. You know what to do if you feel drowsy during the trip, but what can you do beforehand to prepare? Here are some suggestions.
- Before your trip, download some interesting podcasts, or invest in satellite radio that will stay with you wherever you travel.
- Audiobooks are another good way to stay engaged — your library may have some good picks.
- Avoid driving during usual sleeping hours, roughly midnight through 6 a.m. Drowsiness is also common in the late afternoon.
- Avoid alcohol and cannabis. This should go without saying whenever you’re behind the wheel. Liquor or pot make for dangerous driving decisions.
- Watch out for prescription drugs that cause drowsiness. Read the labels of anything you take to be sure it won’t interfere with your ability to stay awake.
- Get a good night’s sleep (7-8 hours) the night before a big trip.
- If you have (or suspect you have) a sleep disorder like apnea, talk to your doctor about how to drive safely.
- Plan your trip ahead of time to avoid long stretches in one day. If you can break your trip over two or more days, you’ll be better able to manage drowsiness.
- Arrange for company. A friend or family member (even a child) can help you stay alert, even if they aren’t able to help with driving.
- Know where the rest stops are along your route, and keep your eye open for safe places to stop while driving.
What Are The Experts Saying?
We’re not the only ones looking to spread the word about drowsy driving. Much has been written about the topic, and the experts we spoke with had words of wisdom to share with those who are anticipating travel in the future.
“Get a good night’s rest before driving. Caffeinated drinks can help you snap out of exhaustion, but they’re a temporary solution. You may help yourself stay alert by eating sunflower seeds. Not only are they a good snack, but they also keep your brain occupied by going through the steps of cracking the shell, getting the seed, and disposing of the shell.
If you’re still struggling with drowsiness, it’s not worth powering through your trip. Instead, you’ll be safer as a driver if you pull over and take a power nap.”
—Rick Musson, 20-year law enforcement officer and driving instructor at Clearsurance.com.
“Sleepiness and fatigue are not exclusive to drivers with inadequate sleep. Long, dull roads and sitting in one position for long hours is draining. The lack of varied stimulants on wide, endless highways is also a factor. Certain cars bestow a hum or flat noise that can put you to sleep at the wheel.
You could choose to drive the speed limit or seek an alternative route that is less constant in nature and more demanding of attention. Driving faster sounds like fun, but it can earn you a nice ticket or even an accident for other reasons.”
—Lauren Fix, automotive expert and founder of The Car Coach Reports
Like our hypothetical driver, you want to be sure you and your loved ones make it to Grandma’s house in one piece — or wherever you are going. To do that, it pays to be aware of the dangers of drowsy driving. Being able to recognize the signs, and knowing what to do when you see them, can save you from an accident, a ticket, or worse.
Sure, when you’re dying to get home for the holidays, it can be frustrating to feel like you need to stop and rest your eyes for 30 minutes. But avoiding drowsy driving can, quite simply, save your life. And after all, no matter what time you arrive at your destination, Grandma will still be waiting with hugs and cookies — so there’s no need to rush.
American Academy of Sleep Medicine. AASM Sleep Prioritization Survey: Drowsy Driving. 2019. Accessed February 8, 2022.
American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Drowsy Driving in the Ridesharing Industry is a Public Safety Risk: Riding Industry Must Address Fatigue and Sleepiness Among Drivers. ScienceDaily. April 16, 2018. Accessed February 8, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drowsy Driving: Asleep at the Wheel. October 28, 2021. Accessed February 7, 2022.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Interstate Truck Driver’s Guide to Hours of Service. March 2015. Accessed February 7, 2022.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drowsy Driving. No date. Accessed February 8, 2022.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities in 2020. May, 2021. Accessed February 7, 2022.
Wheaton, Anne G., et al. Drowsy Driving — 19 States and the District of Columbia, 2009-2010. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. CDC website. January 4, 2013. Accessed February 8, 2022.