Understanding Drowsy Driving and Strategies to Avoid It

Last updated: September 15th, 2023

What Is Drowsy Driving & How to Avoid It

Drowsy driving, or driving a vehicle while sleepy, is dangerous. It is estimated that drowsy driving causes up to 100,000 crashes and 1,550 deaths each year. Around 60% of drivers admit to driving while tired and a significant number say that they do so at least once a month. Groups more likely to drive when they are tired include teenagers and young adults, commercial drivers, and individuals with sleep disorders. Poor quality or insufficient sleep makes it harder to stay alert and attentive behind the wheel.

Why Drowsy Driving Is Dangerous

Drowsiness negatively affects many of the cognitive functions that are necessary for safe driving. Drowsiness and fatigue impair coordination, reaction time, focus, judgment, and memory. As a result, drowsy drivers may lose focus or not brake or swerve in time to avoid a crash. In addition, people who are tired may unintentionally fall asleep for short periods, a phenomenon called microsleep. Microsleeps can last from less than a second to 30 seconds or more, leaving a driver unable to respond to changes on the road or in their surroundings. Together these effects are why drowsy drivers are 2.5 times more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident, and drowsy driving is associated with 1 in 6 fatal crashes.

What Causes Drowsy Driving?

From sleep disorders to working a night shift, there are many reasons why people drive while tired. Some drowsy drivers may not be getting enough sleep, while others have poor quality sleep that leaves them feeling sleepy the next day. Experts recommend that adults over the age of 18 get seven to nine hours of sleep every day. Losing a night of sleep or building sleep debt after several nights of insufficient rest can raise the risk of drowsy driving.

People who work night shifts or long hours are particularly at risk for driving while sleepy. Multiple studies have found that shift workers have an increased risk for motor vehicle accidents. Research suggests that people who work long hours and/or have poor sleeping patterns and irregular schedules are more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident, even when adjusting for other risk factors.

Other underlying medical conditions, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy, can contribute to drowsy driving. Additionally, certain medications, such as those used to treat allergies or relieve cold or flu symptoms, can make people especially sleepy. Drinking alcohol or taking drugs before driving can also increase the risk of drowsy driving.

Strategies to Reduce Drowsiness While Driving

Before getting into a car, it's important to get plenty of rest and arrive feeling well-rested. Scheduling breaks during long trips can help as well. When feeling sleepy, it's important to take 15-20 minute naps to re-energize. Drinking coffee or caffeinated beverages can also help give a short-term boost in alertness.

In-car strategies are also helpful for reducing drowsiness while driving. Regularly engaging the brain by listening to an audio book or talk radio can help. For those who are able maintain alertness while listening to music, this is also an option. And maintaining alertness at night may require the help of a travel companion—having someone in the car who can chat and remain alert with you is a great way to make sure that alertness doesn't fade.

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