We’ve all been there. You’re driving alone, maybe at night, and your eyelids start to feel droopy. It’s almost impossible to keep focus when that feeling hits. It’s very common—and it’s extremely dangerous.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety notes that more than a third of drivers report falling asleep behind the wheel at some point in their lives. More than 10% of drivers have done so within the past year. Those numbers are frightening, but the result is even more frightening: estimates put the number of fatal crashes involving a drowsy driver at one in five. Among non-fatal crashes, drowsy drivers cause 328,000 accidents per year, including 109,000 injury accidents.
Drowsy drivers have slower reaction times, vision impairment, judgment lapses and delays in processing information. They can fall into a microsleep, which is a brief, unintended episode of lost attention (associated with a blank stare, head snap, or eye closure). It might last a fraction of a second or up to 30 seconds and is enough time to lose control of a car of piece of equipment.
The National Sleep Foundation lists several specific groups at are most at risk:
- Young people, especially males under age 26 who may not get enough sleep
- Shift workers and people with long work hours
- Commercial drivers and especially, long-haul drivers
- People with undiagnosed or untreated disorders like sleep apnea or insomnia
- Business travelers, who spend many hours driving or may be jet lagged
Certainly, there are other groups that could be included, including new parents, medicated or intoxicated individuals and those with emotional health issues like depression.
Certain conditions increase the risk:
- Sleep-deprived or fatigued (6 hours of sleep or less triples your risk)
- Suffering from sleep loss (insomnia), poor quality sleep, or sleep debt
- Driving long distances without proper rest breaks
- Driving through the night, during a mid-afternoon energy dip, or when you would normally be asleep
- Taking sedating medications (antidepressants, cold tablets, antihistamines)
- Working more than 60 hours a week (which increases your risk by 40%)
- Working more than one job including shift work
- Drinking even small amounts of alcohol
- Driving alone or on a long, rural, dark, or boring road
While driving, experts recommended finding a safe place to pull over and rest when you feel irritable and sleepy. If you plan to drive a long distance, get adequate rest the night before you leave. If possible, travel during waking hours, alternate drivers when possible, and take frequent breaks. Avoid alcohol and medications that cause drowsiness, and consume caffeine to increase alertness. Be aware of rumble strips, those deep groves at the side of the road that alert drowsy drivers who veer over the line. If you hit one, it might be time to pull off the road and take a rest.
Over the long haul, it’s important to maintain good sleep habits and encourage others to do the same. Experts recommend 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a day for teen-agers and 7-9 hours for adults. Without adequate rest, a “sleep debt” accumulates. And when safety is at stake, we all pay the price.