Drowsy Driving: Risks and Prevention

Stay Alert, Stay Alive.
Drowsy Driving: Risks and Prevention
Tom Greenspan
December 21, 2022

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Fatigue and sleep disorders can have varied effects on health and quality of life, but did you know that they can cause fatal crashes, which can lead to death?

Sleep deprivation and disorders, such as insomnia, sleep apnea, etc., can have several effects on people during their waking time. And its negative effects can range from impaired cognition and health consequences to motor vehicle crashes due to impaired driving. That’s why drowsy driving is considered to be one of the foremost issues plaguing American motorists. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has reported that nearly 91,000 car crashes involved drowsy driving in 2017 alone. These crashes have had very serious outcomes, with estimated deaths amounting to 800. However, traffic safety and public health communities all agree that there is an underestimation of the effects of drowsy driving.

In this article, we will uncover the causes of drowsy driving and discuss some tips on drowsy driving prevention. 

Is Drowsy Driving Really Common? 

There are no parameters to measure the frequency of drowsy driving, but it’s a rather common phenomenon. The National Sleep Foundation conducted a poll in America where they found that 60% of drivers feel fatigued and sleepy while driving. 

Another survey compiled evidence to suggest that one out of every 25 drivers had fallen asleep behind the wheel, indicating the high probability of drowsy driving-related crashes. Yet another study by AAA Foundation For Traffic Safety discovered that 328,000 drowsy driving crashes occur each year. And it’s more than thrice the amount reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

So, this survey and numerous others, including the ones conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, point towards the direction of an urgent need to curb drowsy driving. Such dangerous driving behavior is widely recognized as a potential threat to the lives of thousands of drivers. And this has made the American population observe a Drowsy Driving Prevention Week on the first week of November each year.

How Dangerous Is Drowsy Driving?

Drowsy driving is one of the most common causes of car accidents, and they often occur due to “microsleep.” This sleep lasts for only a few seconds, but this little time is enough to endanger the driver. During this inopportune moment, your car can run off the path or crash into another vehicle, which gives you almost no reaction time to save yourself.

Briefly speaking, microsleep is caused by sleep deprivation, which can result from various sleep disorders and other stressful situations. Sleep-deprived people show signs of mental impairment that make them feel fuzzy, similar to being drunk - and this can happen with only 24 hours worth of lack of sufficient sleep.

This feeling is common among sleep-deprived individuals, who become less attentive to their surroundings and slow down their reaction time, impacting decision-making behind the wheel. Such a dangerous combination is a one-way ticket for drowsy driving crashes. So, the best way to prevent drowsy driving is by ensuring you get enough sleep through any means - be it sleep medicine, lifestyle changes, meditation, and other stress management techniques. 

What Are The Causes Of Drowsy Driving?

While we’ve touched upon sleep deprivation as a cause of drowsy driving, there are several other factors that contribute to why people drive drowsy. Let’s take a look at them:

1. Sleep Deprivation

As we’ve already mentioned, lack of adequate sleep can cause daytime sleepiness, including the risks of microsleep and other sleep disorders that can increase the risk of accidents. On average, adults should get seven to nine hours of healthy sleep every day to function in an optimal way.

2. Sleep Disorders

One in every 15 adults in America suffers from a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, which prevents people from falling asleep quickly, leading to obstructive sleep. Such restricted sleep is less restorative - and if the sleep disorder persists without proper diagnosis, it can cause excessive daytime sleepiness.

3. Drinking Alcohol

Driving under the influence of alcohol can undoubtedly cause motor accidents by stimulating sleep, which reduces alertness and affects your decision-making ability behind the wheel. So, it’s best to avoid alcohol before driving to prevent drowsy driving crashes.

4. Medications

Many over-the-counter medications, such as sleep aids, dietary supplements, painkillers, etc., make people feel sleepy as a side effect. Moreover, prescription drugs that are taken during the night can cause daytime drowsiness, leading to driving hazards.

5. Driving Time

The time of the day when you drive significantly affects your chances of encountering a drowsy driving-related accident. Such accidents occur the most between midnight and 6 a.m. in the morning and in the afternoon when sleepiness is usually at its peak.

Who Has A Higher Risk Of Drowsy Driving?

Even though most people can be a victim of drowsy driving, some people are at a higher risk of drowsy driving when they’re behind the wheel:

1. Young Drivers

Young adults with ages ranging from 18 to 29 incur a higher risk of drowsy driving since their sleep cycles work differently than older people. They have a high-functioning sleep cycle that helps them resist drowsiness for a longer time - but this exact ability increases their chances of suddenly falling asleep without any warning.

Moreover, young adults and teenagers require at least two hours of extra sleep than older people, but they barely get five to seven hours each night. This leads to a huge sleep debt, which can accumulate over time and strike them with microsleeps when they least expect it. And such risks have been documented by the National Sleep Foundation, which found that this age group accounts for almost half of the drowsy driving accidents.

2. Shift Workers

Most of the workforce in the country follows a strict shift schedule, following either the swing shift (mid-afternoon to midnight) or the graveyard shift (late evening/midnight to early morning). Shift workers typically work beyond the nine-to-five cycle of the corporate world - and as you can see, the schedules include times when people are the sleepiest. So, adult drivers who are shift workers are equally in danger regarding drowsy driving.

3. People With Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders can often go undiagnosed, and that’s why they’re considered to be a silent killer. Some of the sleep disorders that can cause severe daytime drowsiness are as follows:

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Interruption of circadian rhythm due to temporary loss of breath, which can lead to daytime drowsiness.
  • Narcolepsy: The chronic illness which entails the tendency to fall asleep at random times of the day, especially when calm or relaxed.
  • Sleep Onset Insomnia: Not being able to fall asleep during normal sleep times.
  • Sleep Maintenance Insomnia: Difficulty getting a steady, good night’s sleep during normal sleeping hours.

What Are The Warning Signs Of Drowsy Driving?

There are some telling signs that you can look out for while driving, which can potentially save your life. Stop driving immediately and park your vehicle when you notice the following signs:

  • Wanting to doze off and unable to stay awake
  • Frequently yawning
  • Increased blinking due to tired and irritated eyes
  • Not being able to remember the last few miles
  • Missing exits and road signs
  • Difficulty in driving the vehicle at a steady speed
  • Accidentally driving too close to other vehicles

Ensure you take these signs quite seriously since they will help you drive alert and prevent any chances of drowsy driving. Drive through a nearby exit, pull off the road, and rest until you feel adequately rested.

How To Drive Alert And Prevent Drowsy Driving

Even though motor accidents due to drowsy driving seem like a huge obstacle to overcome, one can avoid them by following some tips before and after driving. Making significant lifestyle changes can also aid in this prevention.

Some ways to prevent drowsy driving include:

1. Get Plenty Of Sleep

This may sound a little repetitive, but most of the drowsy driving-related cases are due to the lack of sleep of the drivers. Get at least seven to eight hours of sleep at night, especially if you intend to drive the next day. Learn to recognize your sleep patterns and avoid driving when you feel exhausted. 

2. Avoid Driving During Sleep Hours

Our bodies’ internal clock (or circadian rhythm) makes us feel drowsier during certain times of the day - midnight to six a.m. in the morning and early afternoon. So, reduce your need to drive at these times. 

3. Plan Your Driving Schedule Ahead of Time

If you’re going on a longer trip, break your entire transport plans into shorter trips with adequate opportunities for rest in between. Many national highways and freeways have designated rest areas, which you can utilize to take a power nap before embarking on the next part of the journey. This will significantly reduce the risk of motor accidents by eliminating the chances of microsleep or cognitive dysfunction.

4. Avoid Driving Under Influence

If you have consumed alcohol or other sedatives, it’s best to avoid driving the next day since these substances interrupt good sleep and can leave you feeling drowsy in the morning. While planning your daily schedule or road trip, leave out any occasion that requires drinking or smoking, and focus on getting a good shut-eye.

5. Bring A Companion

A study has found that over 80% of drowsy driving crashes occur in single-occupant motor vehicles, so having a travel companion in the car can keep you safe. Besides sharing driving duties, a friend or companion can keep you stimulated with conversations and help you stay alert. This is a foolproof method of avoiding most motor accidents since two pairs of eyes will monitor the road.

Moreover, remember to make your companion aware of the dangers and risks of drowsy driving, so they can stay alert as well.

6. Monitor Your Caffeine Intake

Besides coffee, many beverages and candies that we consume daily contain high levels of caffeine, such as tea, carbonated drinks, and even chocolates. And while a controlled amount of caffeine can keep you awake, it might actually contribute to daytime drowsiness in the long run. So, don’t use caffeine as an alternative to sleep - keep yourself well-rested instead.

7. Improve Air Circulation In Your Car

Vehicles steadily emit carbon dioxide, which can make you feel drowsy, especially if the gas is trapped in closed car interiors. Roll down your windows or adjust the vents, and try to fill your car with as much fresh air as possible. Good air circulation will greatly reduce the risk of drowsy driving crashes and microsleep.

8. Ensure A Healthy Sleep Hygiene

The most effective step towards drowsy driving prevention is creating a healthy sleep schedule, including good hygiene when it comes to your sleep environment. Some examples of sleep hygiene are ensuring your bedroom is free from light and noise pollution, reducing screen time before bed, and maintaining a stable sleep routine.

Final Thoughts

There have been many efforts on the part of organizations to create roads that are cut out to reduce drowsy driving by providing drowsiness alerts. However, the only way you can actually prevent it from happening is by following the above-mentioned safety tips. These will help make the road safer for yourself, your friends and family, and other drivers behind the wheel.

Moreover, if you face severe, consistent difficulty in falling or staying asleep, it’s time for you to consult a doctor and get diagnosed. An accurate diagnosis and the scheduled intake of prescribed medicines can resolve the issue at its roots and enhance your sleep quality. This will also improve your overall health in the long run, helping you combat various illnesses and disorders.

With that, we’ve come to the end of our informative guide on drowsy driving. We’ll be coming back with more sleep-related guides and articles, so stay tuned.

See you next time!