How to Avoid Falling Asleep While Driving

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There are so many dangers while driving, from driving under the influence to texting while driving, but let’s not forget the age old problem that can happen to anyone -- falling asleep while driving.  While drunk driving and texting are issues that people are well aware of, where legislation and law enforcement have stepped in, falling asleep while driving can happen to anyone and is just as dangerous.

Since texting while driving is a fairly new problem, I have not personally known anyone who has been involved in an accident from it.  But I know of several people that have been in accidents involving falling asleep while driving or drunk driving.  Unfortunately, all incidents involving falling asleep while driving were fatalities. 

Here are some real statistics. According to Drivers.com, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that approximately 100,000 police-reported crashes annually involve drowsiness and/or fatigue as a principal cause. Those crashes result in an estimated 1,500 fatalities and 71,000 injuries each year, costing approximately $12.5 billion. 

This issue is near and dear to me since I often find myself falling asleep while driving.  I will be driving along and slowly the road will fall away from me, my eyes will close, and my mind will drift off.  I’ve caught my head bobbing and my tires hitting the rumble strip.  This can be especially bad when someone else in the car is sleeping, and I blame them for sending out “sleepy vibes”. 

I’ve tried all the usual tricks of opening the windows, blasting the radio, pinching myself, and chewing gum.  The experts say that none of this works.  It is completely true.  The only thing that is guaranteed to work is pulling over and taking a nap.  Don’t worry about not waking up after 15 minutes, every time I’ve pulled over for a nap, my body always remembers that it needs to wake up to complete the drive.  A safe place to pull over should be a rest area or parking lot if possible, not the side of the road.

The National Sleep Foundation has an excellent video that gives tips on preventing drowsy driving.  The beginning of the video gives some background on who and when drowsy driving strikes (you may be surprised at the statistics). The tips on preventing drowsy driving start at around five minutes if you want the short version.

From DrowsyDriving.org, About.com and well as my own experience, here are the best tips to avoid falling asleep while driving:

Before a trip, do the following:

  • Get adequate sleep the night before (7-9 hours).  When you don’t get enough sleep, your body will try to make it up somehow.
  • Schedule breaks every 2 hours during long trips.
  • Arrange to travel with a companion -- someone to talk with and share the driving.
  • Avoid driving between midnight and the early morning hours -- this is usually the time I have the most trouble, especially driving home after a late night flight.
  • Avoid alcohol and sedating medications -- check your labels or ask your doctor.
  • Avoid having a large meal and then setting out to drive.

Even with the best intentions, you may still find yourself falling asleep while driving.  If you do, watch for the warning signs:

  • Yawning
  • Heavy eyelids, frequent blinking, watery eyes and rubbing the eyes
  • Cannot keep your mind focused
  • Trouble remembering the last few miles driven
  • Drifting from the lane, hitting the rumble strips
  • Head bobbing

If you do find yourself getting drowsy while driving, here are some countermeasures to prevent an accident:

  • Take a nap -- find a safe place to take a 15 to 20-minute nap.  Again, I cannot emphasize enough that this is the only guaranteed way to combat drowsy driving.  Taking a rest may get you to your destination a little bit later, but as the video says, think of it as the "rest" of your life. 
  • Stop driving and find a place to sleep for the night.
  • Consume caffeine -- 2 cups of coffee or equivalent can increase alertness for several hours.  Remember that caffeine may take some time to take effect.
  • Try consuming caffeine before taking a short nap to get the benefits of both.

Automobile manufacturers such as Volvo and Mercedes offer drowsy driver alert systems that warn drivers that they may be dozing off.  Still, this does not force the driver to do the safest thing which would be to pull over and take a nap.  It also may give drivers a false sense of security that the car would catch them dozing off so they may not be alert to the warning signs.

More and more states have instituted awareness programs for drowsy driving.  Most recently, Florida instituted a Drowsy Driving Awareness Week after an 8 year old girl died from an accident caused by a drowsy driver.

Around the blogosphere, EmmyLou weighs in on her personal experiences with drowsy driving, and Michelle also discusses drowsiness due to pregnancy.

What are your experiences with drowsy driving?

Contributing editor Angela blogs about her “sleepy vibes” kids over at mommy bytes.

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