Drinking, Driving & Sleep

Drinking, Driving & Sleep

Is driving drowsy as dangerous as driving drunk?

Have you ever driven while tired? Thought a cup of coffee would perk you up? Did you know that 90% of police officers have (at least once) pulled over a driver who appeared to be drunk only to find a sleepy driver – not an intoxicated one – behind the wheel? A 2010 study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) estimated that 1 out 6 (16.5%) fatal traffic accidents and 1 out of 8 (12.5%) crashes requiring hospitalization of car drivers or passengers are due to drowsy driving.

But what makes driving drowsy so dangerous? For starters, driver who falls asleep at the wheel is more likely to crash head-on with another vehicle, tree or building without trying to avoid the crash by swerving or braking. In fact, the lack of skid marks on the road after a crash is a strong indicator that the driver fell asleep at the wheel.

Trouble is, an exhausted driver may not even realize s/he has fallen asleep. Micro-sleeps can last 4-5 seconds, which doesn’t seem like a long time – but it’s long enough to cross the centerline and crash. You might think you can power through your need to sleep but statistics say otherwise.

If you’re concerned about someone you love driving drowsy, keep reading.

Who’s at risk for driving drowsy?

Drowsy driving accidents happen most often overnight but there’s also a small peak during mid to late afternoon – that point in the day when our energy naturally lulls. While anyone who drives tired is at risk, certain groups of people tend to face higher risks:

  • New drivers – Young drivers are 4 times more likely to be the cause of sleep-related crashes than drivers over 30. Over-estimating their ability to work through sleep issues may be the primary reason.
  • Shift workers – People who work at night have no choice but to go against their natural circadian rhythm – the need to sleep between midnight and 6 am.
  • People who suffer from sleep disorders – More than 50 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder and many suffer without diagnosis. Sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and restless leg syndrome are just a few disorders that disrupt sleep.
  • Travelers – Whether it’s leisure or business travel, sleep is common problem for people who travel. Jetlag and long work hours are more of a problem for business travelers though.

How can you prevent drowsy driving?

Getting a good night’s sleep and never getting behind the wheel are the best ways to ensure you’ll never drive drowsy. But just like people can sometimes be a poor judge of whether they should drive after a couple drinks, there are a lot of shades of grey when it comes to drowsy driving. Use these tips to protect yourself from falling into the drowsy driving habit.

  • Buddy system – If you’re planning a long trip, bring a friend. A passenger can keep you chatting and be watchful for signs of fatigue. If your friend has a driver’s license and can take turns driving, even better.
  • Zero tolerance – Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is never smart but it’s especially dangerous if you’re already tired. If you must take medication that affects alertness, avoid driving until your mind is 100% clear.
  • Take breaks – Schedule regular breaks even if you don’t feel tired. Getting out of the car to stretch your legs will improve circulation and refresh you. If you need help to remember to stop more often, drink lots of water and your bladder will remind you.
  • Nap – A 20 minute nap will refresh and revive you much better than a coffee that might give you a quick perk. A power nap (10-30 minutes) will fuel your energy for hours but keep it short so you’re not groggy when you wake.