About a week ago a young, promising teenage boy was killed on my road. He was coming back from night fishing when his car veered off and hit a tree. He was killed instantly. There were no witnesses but everyone feels he may have fallen asleep behind the wheel. He was only 17 years old.
Driver fatigue is a dangerous game to play. You always think you can make it. Just 25 more miles, I am almost there. The unfortunate truth is that sometimes you don’t make it.
Wake up. According to the National Sleep Foundation, two-thirds of Americans have sleep-related problems at some time in their life and 23 percent have actually fallen asleep while driving. The National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) research shows that drowsiness and/or fatigue is a contributing factor in approximately 100,000 motor vehicle crashes annually and is a factor in nearly four percent of all fatal crashes.
Let’s look at some preventative measures you can take to reduce your likelihood of being involved in a drowsy driving collision.
- Get some sleep: This one may seem like a given, but most drowsy driving incidents are the result of a driver who is not fully rested. The best way to decrease drowsiness behind the wheel is to ensure you’ve gotten enough sleep before getting in the car. Learn to recognize the ways that drowsiness and fatigue affect you individually, and avoid driving if you are sleep-deprived.
- Bring a friend: A recent UCLA study found that 82% of drowsy driving incidents were caused by single-occupant vehicles. Passengers can greatly decrease your chances of falling asleep while driving. Furthermore, a licensed passenger may be able to take over in the driver’s seat if you become sleepy behind the wheel.
- Use rest stops: Commonly found along our nation’s freeways and highways, rest areas are designed as safe spaces where you can park your car and, if need be, take a quick nap. Some rest stops will only allow you to remain in the area for up to an hour, but this should be adequate time for a restful nap. A popular trend among today’s drivers is to take a caffeine nap, or consume a caffeinated beverage and then get some shuteye. The caffeine will take effect after 15 to 20 minutes, leaving the napper feeling even more refreshed when they wake up. Speaking of caffeine…
- Manage your caffeine intake: In addition to coffee, caffeine can also be found in a wide range of teas and carbonated beverages. Chocolate is another good source. While caffeine will provide extra energy, it is not an adequate replacement for sleep. So if you feel yourself getting drowsy after a cup of joe and a candy bar, then you should consider stopping for a nap.
- Chew gum: Chewing gum exercises your jaw muscles, which can stimulate your senses and increase alertness. This is a good temporary energy source if you are not hungry or thirsty.
- Get plenty of fresh air: Carbon dioxide can make us feel sleepy, especially in stuffy car interiors. Opening car windows or adjusting the vent controls to bring in outside air can lower carbon dioxide levels and, in turn, reduce the risk of drowsy driving.
- Listen to music: The solo driver’s best friend is often the radio. Rather than listening to at a high volume – which can damage your hearing – consider listening to energetic music.
- If possible, drive while the sun shines: Your circadian rhythm will keep you feeling more awake and alert during the daylight hours. Additionally, sunlight stimulates your brain and extends your reaction time while driving. Natural sunlight is also a source of Vitamin D, which can help you sleep better at night.
- Use an app: Car manufacturers are currently developing automated systems to help drivers avoid drowsiness. In the meantime, a smartphone app can provide the same service. These apps monitor driver eye activities when the smart device is mounted on the dashboard.
- When in doubt, check into a room: If you feel drowsy and there don’t appear to be any rest areas nearby, then you should consider checking into a hotel, motel or other roadside lodging facility. Ask at the front desk if they offer an hourly room rate; this may allow you to catch a few hours of sleep and be back on the road relatively soon.
Remember: it is dangerous and against the law to pull your car onto the shoulder of a freeway or highway in order to sleep.
Alcohol use is another important consideration. The effects of alcohol on humans vary from person to person, and often depend on factors like weight and medical history. The general rule of thumb is that 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of liquor are all roughly equivalent, and that more than three individual servings of any combination over the course of a few hours will cause intoxication. However, even one serving of alcohol can cause you to become drowsy.
Additionally, it’s important for people who regularly take medication to read the warning labels, even if they have been prescribed for a non-sleep-related condition. The following medication types are designed to induce drowsiness to some extent:
- Hypnotics and other sleep aids
- Narcotic pain relief pills
- Certain medications for high blood pressure
- Cold medicine
- Certain antihistamines
- Muscle relaxants
Finally, understanding your own individual symptoms of drowsy driving is critical when you are on the road. If you are concerned about your fatigue level and worried that drowsiness may be impacting your driving, here are a few considerations to make:
- Are you yawning or blinking frequently? Is your head suddenly feeling really heavy? These are some of the ways your body will let you know you’re tired.
- If you are driving on familiar roads, have you missed any traffic signals? As you become more tired, your mind often focuses on controlling the car ? and as a result, you may drive right through a traffic signal or stop sign.
- How close are you to the vehicle in front of you? Drowsy drivers often (and unintentionally) tailgate other vehicles.
- What do you remember about the last few miles of your drive? As your body gets more exhausted, you will likely remember fewer details of the drive.
- Are your thoughts coherent? Or is your mind wandering all over the place? Pay attention to your mental activities, and pull over if you have a hard time thinking clearly.
- Did you miss your exit? Are you aware of your current location in relation to other exits?
- Are you starting to lose control of the car? Has your vehicle started swerving? Have you been jarred awake after inadvertently crossing the rumble strip?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you should get off the road immediately and refrain from driving until you are properly rested.