Driving requires extreme focus and attention. There is a lot of buzz about driving while under the influence, but less about the risks of drowsy driving. One in five fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver, but it is seldom mentioned in driver’s ed or defensive driving classes, despite the fact that teenagers are a high risk group. Unlike drunk driving, drowsy drivers seldom show signs of a problem before a car accident occurs.
Studies show that being awake for 18 hours straight may impair you as much as a blood alcohol level of 0.5, while being awake for 24 hours is equivalent to 0.10 in some individuals, worse than being at the legal limit in most states. Sixty percent of adults admit to having driven when they knew they were tired. Furthermore, as fatigue impairs your judgement, it may make you more likely to keep driving when you should not.
So, what signs should you watch out for? You should not drive if you are showing signs of fatigue, which may include:
Passengers should also watch drivers for these symptoms, especially as most drowsy drivers have no idea they are impaired until they doze off and have a car accident.
If you are too tired to drive, you should switch drivers or pull off at the next opportunity and take a nap. Coffee or caffeinated soda is only a temporary remedy, but may help you get somewhere safe to nap. You should nap for at least twenty minutes. If you are road tripping and it is already late in the day, it might be time to try and find a hotel. Always take regular rest breaks when driving, even if you are tempted to push through to get to your destination faster. Allow plenty of time for your trip so you are not rushed.
You can also prevent drowsy driving by getting enough sleep in the first place. You should avoid driving if you have had less than seven hours sleep the night before. If you have insomnia or a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor about treatments. People who snore are particularly prone to falling asleep at the wheel, and sometimes may not realize they are not getting enough quality sleep. If you are starting a road trip early to avoid traffic, try to adjust your sleep schedule earlier over the few days before so you are not tired when you hit the road.
If possible, schedule driving for the time of the day when you are most alert. Make sure you are fully awake before driving. Some people experience sleep inertia, meaning that they remain impaired for 30 to 60 minutes after getting out of bed. Shift workers, teenagers, long distance truckers, college students and business travelers are all at particular risk. Jet lag can also cause issues. If you have just started a new medication, avoid driving until you know how it will affect you. Avoid driving when taking antihistamines or cold medication.
Finally, long straight roads, rural roads, and boring roads can cause drowsiness even in rested individuals, especially if you are alone. If driving alone, particularly if you know your route will lead you along a similar type path, turn on the radio or an audiobook. Choose audiobooks or music with lyrics, as instrumental music can make you more drowsy. The best way to avoid a car accident caused by drowsy driving is recognize the signs and not drive in the first place.
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