03 Jul Get Your ZZZs: Why a Good Night’s Sleep Is Essential for Safe Driving
Drowsy driving is reaching epidemic proportions. The key to staying awake and alert behind the wheel is simple. Get a good night’s sleep.
Drowsy driving can be just as dangerous as drunk driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This is because sleep deprivation affects the body in ways similar to alcohol, impairing cognitive functions, including short-term memory, reaction time, and ability to process information. In 2015, NHTSA estimated that over 72,000 reported crashes in the United States were the result of sleep-deprived drivers. Of those, 41,000 resulted in injuries and over 800 deaths.
The good news is that the tens of thousands of accidents that come from drowsy driving are entirely preventable. By taking a few precautionary measures, you can help make the road, and yourself, safer. Here are some simple changes you can incorporate into your driving and sleep habits to help you stay wide awake and alert while on the road.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Your No. 1 defense against drowsiness is getting a good night’s sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends getting between 7 and 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night.
If you are getting this amount of sleep, and still feel drowsy, you may have a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that about 70 million Americans have a sleep disorder. The good news is that it can be easily tested for and effectively treated. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, consult with your physician.
To aid a good night’s sleep, you also need to make sure you’re practicing good sleep “hygiene” — sleeping in a room that is quiet, dark, and comfortable.
Getting just a little less sleep each night can be disastrous. A report on drowsy driving by the AAA Foundation found that only getting:
- Six to seven hours of sleep increased the likelihood of crashing by 1.3 times
- Five to six hours of sleep increased the likelihood of crashing by 1.9 times
- Four to five hours of sleep increased the likelihood of crashing by 4.3 times
- Less than four hours of sleep increased the likelihood of crashing by 11.5 times
In addition, you should also avoid driving if you’re taking medication that causes drowsiness or other impairments until the side effects wear off.
Also, eating a large, heavy meal could affect your alertness, and make you sleepy. Take some time to digest the heavy meal before driving—for instance you could spend time catching up on work e-mail or making client calls.
Watch for signs of drowsiness
There are some telltale signs that you’re drowsy. These include:
- Excessive yawning
- Eye rubbing
- Drifting into other lanes
- Hitting shoulder strips
- Trouble focusing
If you find yourself experiencing any of these warning signs, pull off the road and give yourself time to perk up.
There are ways to refresh and perk up during the day that can combat drowsiness. Take frequent breaks to make sure your body and mind are well-rested at all times. The AAA Exchange suggests taking a break every two hours or every 100 miles. This will give you the opportunity to rest, switch drivers if you’re traveling with a co-worker, and energize yourself with a light snack or a caffeinated drink.
Caffeine is not a replacement for sleep. In order to be effective, you should take a dosage of at least 200 mg — which is the amount of caffeine in a 16 oz. cup of coffee. Caffeine also takes about 20 to 30 minutes to kick in, which is an ideal time to take a short nap or just unwind.
If you don’t do well with caffeine, or have already had too much coffee and you still feel drowsy, reclaim some energy naturally with some light exercise and stretching. Driving for long periods will leave your body constricted and hamper blood flow, especially in the hips. Get out and stretch or walk a bit to inform your body that this is not the time for sleep.
Finally, try rolling down the windows or run the air-conditioner to jolt the body a bit before you can find some time to rest up properly.
Time of day can also be a predictor of alertness. Because of the body’s circadian rhythms or biological clock, we are typically more alert during the day. Our bodies are designed to work best during the day, though younger people, so-called “night owls,” tend to be able to work better in the evening than their older colleagues. As we age, we need more light to feel wide awake. No matter your age, if possible, avoid nighttime driving shifts between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m.
In addition to having good company, traveling with another person can provide a host of other benefits for those worried about drowsy driving. If you have someone to talk to it can help keep you awake, alert, and energized—and can help gauge your alertness. If you start exhibiting signs of drowsiness, you can switch driving duties, allowing yourself time to rest and recharge without having to make an overlong stop.
While drowsy driving is a serious problem, there are simple steps you can take to avoid being a statistic. Getting a good night’s sleep, taking frequent breaks, and driving during the day is a prescription for staying awake and alert during a day of driving on the job.