Caucasian male yawns into side mirror of car drowsy.

Preparation Can Put Drowsy Driving Risk to Rest

Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go — but are we wide awake when behind the wheel for the journey?

As the holidays approach, we begin traveling more and potentially sleeping less. The threat of drowsy driving is so great that November 3 through 7 is actually National Drowsy Driving Week, which is designed to put a spotlight on that heavy-lidded navigating we may do sometimes.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that driver fatigue accounts for at least 100,000 police-reported crashes each year, with an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and a cost of about $12.5 billion.

Studies by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) have found that 71 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 are likely to drive drowsy — more than the next age group of 30-64, where 52 percent were likely to do so.

“Men are more likely than women to drive while drowsy and are almost twice as likely as women to fall asleep while driving,” the NSF said. Adults with children in the household are 59 percent more likely to drive drowsy, too.

And what exactly does sleep deprivation do to driving ability? According to one Australian study, being awake for 18 hours impaired subjects in a way that was equal to a blood alcohol level of 0.05. After 24 hours, that impairment equaled a BAC of 0.10. In most states, 0.08 is considered legally drunk.

But an AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study found that it doesn’t take 18 hours of sleep deprivation to have an effect on driving. According to the study, people who sleep six to seven hours a night are twice as likely to be involved in a drowsy driving crash as those sleeping eight hours or more. People who sleep less than five hours increased their risk four to five times.

And when you factor in that the NSF’s 2014-2015 Sleep Health Index found that 45 percent of Americans said poor or insufficient sleep affected their daily activities at least once in the past seven days, chances are if you’re on the road, you’re sharing it with drowsy drivers — and you may even be one.

So when you have a long road trip to see family looming, what can you do to make sure your eyes stay open for the entire drive?

Arash Tirandaz, M.D., an internist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano, said in addition to making sure your car is road-ready for the trip, you should spend a few hours the day before to ensure you’ll be ready, too.

“Take a short nap during the day,” he said. “Watch a YouTube video on meditation and listen to some relaxing music. Get a massage. Avoid or minimize caffeine the day before a long trip. And eat well, exercise, hydrate and minimize or avoid alcohol.”

But as we all know, sometimes trip preparations might eat into our driver preparation time. So if you do find yourself feeling drowsy behind the wheel, Tirandaz said it’s good to have a plan in place for it.

“Pull over, get some rest,” he said.  “A short nap of even 15 minutes can significantly help and prevent an accident.”

But even better, drive with a partner if possible so you can take turns sleeping, he added.

“Avoid driving late at night to early morning, between midnight to 6 a.m.,” Tirandaz said. “Avoid alcohol — even small amounts can make you super sleepy. And drink caffeine.”

How do you know you might be too drowsy to drive? The CDC says to look out for these signs:

  • Yawning or blinking frequently
  • Difficulty remembering the past few miles driven
  • Missing your exit
  • Drifting from your lane
  • Hitting a rumble strip on the side of the road

We all know that holiday travel can be stressful. The rigors of travel — sleeping in strange beds, staying up late, long drives — can really mess with sleep. Tirandaz said there are ways to combat that insomnia or poor sleep that might affect the drive home later.

In addition to napping, minimal alcohol use, eating well and hydrating, he always recommends getting a good night’s sleep and getting some stretching exercises in before bed.

“Shut the curtains really well in the hotel the night before to limit any light, and when you get up, the first thing to do is look at the sunlight and get light in the room,” he said.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine added that rolling down the windows and turning up the volume on the car stereo doesn’t really increase alertness. It also provided this list of drowsy-driving preventatives:

  • Get a full night of seven to eight hours of sleep before driving
  • Avoid driving late at night
  • Avoid driving alone
  • On a long trip, share the driving with another passenger
  • Pull over at a rest stop and take a nap
  • Use caffeine for a short-term boost
  • Take a short nap after consuming caffeine to maximize the effect
  • Arrange for someone to give you a ride home after working a late shift

Find yourself drowsy a lot? Suffering from insomnia? To find a sleep specialist or primary care physician, visit TexasHealth.org/Find-A-Physician or call 1-877-THR-WELL.

1 Comment

  • Steve Leavitt says:

    I am, or was a drowsy driver. My solution to my problem was pretzels. Pretzels…are you nuts?Well, I found that eating (more specifically), chewing, provided the necessary stimulus to keep me from “drifting off” on a diversionary thought path. You know, a football game , household problems, and such. I use the stick version for ease of handling and eating. This may not work for everybody, but what have you got to loose? Better a few extra calories than a few less years!

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