Almost as Dangerous as Drunk Driving: How Does Lack of Sleep Affect Your Ability to Drive?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, over 10,000 people died in crashes caused by drunk drivers in 2017. This is a staggering number of deaths that can easily be avoided by simply not driving while under the influence of alcohol.
Statistics about drunk driving have been kept since 1982, and in 1991, over 15,000 people died in drunk driving crashes. Awareness and prevention programs have helped to decrease the numbers of deaths caused by drinking and driving.

Drowsy driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving

What hasn’t gotten the same attention is driving while drowsy. With overworked and sleep-deprived drivers all over the road, falling asleep at the wheel is more common than most people think. According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 70,000 accidents were the result of people falling asleep at the wheel and those who cause accidents can have serious legal consequences – read more here.
Like drunk driving, falling asleep at the wheel can also be prevented. It just takes some basic awareness of your ability to stay awake.
When you drive while overly tired, you can be just as dangerous as a drunk driver. The experience of driving while drowsy (think being away for 18 hours straight) is similar to driving under the influence of a .05 blood-alcohol level. In most states, .08 is the magic blood-alcohol level that will land you in jail for drunk driving. Once you go above 18 hours of being awake, your ability to drive becomes similar to that of being officially drunk.

Why drowsy driving is problematic

The trouble with driving while drowsy comes from your inability to pay attention and to make decisions. Drowsy drivers often find themselves going the speed limit – think 70 MPH on the highway – as they fall asleep behind the wheel. Once drivers fall asleep, they cannot react to what is ahead of them on the road.
On the other hand, drunk drivers will go slowly and take special care not to look like they are driving while drunk. They will work hard to avoid hitting anything, especially if they are not too far over the legal limit. Driving drunk and driving drowsy are both incredibly dangerous.

What drowsy drivers do

Studies have found that sleepy drivers have more chances to drive off the road than drivers who have had a good night of sleep before hitting the road. Interestingly, many drowsy-driving accidents actually happen in the hours between midnight and 6 AM. However, older drivers often find themselves feeling sleepy in the middle of the afternoon. Drowsy driving accidents can happen at any time. But, the people who struggle the most are those who work unusual shifts, especially long ones, like nurses, doctors, and police officers. Truckers who drive long distances also report problems with drowsy driving.

Warning signs for drowsy drivers

It is relatively easy for drivers to notice but when they start to get sleepy behind the wheel as the warning signs start to pile up. Unfortunately, these warning signs are also easy to overlook. Before nodding off completely, you should pull over and take a break if you notice yourself

  • Yawning frequently
  • Struggling to keep your eyes open
  • Forgetting where you are on the road or where you have been
  • Struggling to stay at the posted speed
  • Missing turns or road signs

It is best to pull over and take a break as soon as you notice any combination of these signs. Otherwise, you might find yourself driving into a ditch or getting into an accident. Often, the easiest way to remedy the situation is to take a little break, drink a caffeinated beverage, or find something to eat. Even a 15 to 20-minute nap can help keep you awake a little longer.
Consider how fast a car can travel in a short amount of time. Then, consider this happening while you are asleep at the wheel. Because drunk driving and drowsy driving are equally dangerous, researchers and decision-makers are continually working on interventions to reduce the chances that drivers will fall asleep at the wheel.

Interventions to reduce drowsy driving accidents

Vehicles are being made with sensors that can determine if a driver is falling asleep. Many vehicles are also coming with sensors that alert drivers if they veer out of lanes in an unusual way. The sensors recognize the painted lines on the road and the unusual way the vehicle crossed them.
Since many medications can make people feel drowsy, labeling guidelines have changed. Labels on prescription and over-the-counter medications now warn people not to drive or operate heavy machinery when taking specific drugs.
Even workplaces are getting in on the interventions. Employers that require their employees to work long or unusual hours are providing training for their employees to understand the importance of sleep and how to get a necessary amount. There are apps that people can use on their phones to learn about their sleep patterns and how to make the most out of their time in bed.

Learn healthy sleep habits at a young age

College students are also likely to drive while drowsy. Because of this trend, universities are working with their students to help them better understand why sleep is so important. By learning about healthy behaviors at a young age, they will develop better sleep habits when they enter the workplace.

Consider alternatives to driving while drowsy

Although the exact amount of sleep varies from person to person, most experts recommend a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night. However, if you are unable to do this before you have a long drive, there are a few things to consider if you have to drive while excessively tired. To avoid accidents due to your own drowsiness:

  • Drive with another person who can drive when you get tired
  • Pull over at a rest stop if you need a nap
  • Do not drive by yourself
  • Do not drive during late night hours
  • Use caffeine only for short-term help


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