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You are getting very sleepy: the dangers of drowsy driving

If an extended rest isn't an option, a 20-minute nap can help prevent drowsy driving.

It’s late at night, and the car ahead of you is driving erratically, swerving in and out of its lane, even running over rumble strips on the road’s shoulder.

The person behind the wheel may not be under the influence of alcohol, but he may be nearly as dangerous as a drunken driver.

Meet the drowsy driver. Of course, you’ve probably already encountered him because he is everywhere.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries, and 800 deaths in 2013. However, the agency said the numbers underestimated a problem that could amount to 6,000 fatal crashes each year.

Consistent with that finding, a 2018 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that drowsiness was a factor in 9.5 percent of all crashes and 10.8 percent of higher-severity crashes. USA Today noted that previous federal estimates suggested that drowsiness was a factor in only 1 percent to 2 percent of crashes.

“As many Americans struggle to balance their busy schedules, missing a few hours of sleep each day can often seem harmless,” said Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “But missing just two to three hours of sleep can more than quadruple your risk for a crash, which is the equivalent of driving drunk.”

Warning signs

Being awake for 18 straight hours, according to the Sleep Foundation, is like driving with an alcohol level of .05 (.08 is considered drunk). Going without sleep for 24 hours and driving equates to a .10 alcohol level.

From the foundation: “Both drowsy driving and drunk driving make it hard to pay attention to the road, and negatively impact how well you can make fast decisions. But as similar as they are, drowsy driving and drunk driving don’t always look the same on the road. 

“A drunk driver can often drive slowly and try to react, but a drowsy driver can nod off while still going fast. So, drowsy drivers don't always brake or swerve if something happens in front of them.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites these warning signs of drowsy driving:

• 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.

Besides a lack of sleep, factors contributing to drowsiness may include an untreated sleeping disorder, medications, alcohol and shift work. [link to The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]

Most experienced drivers have battled drowsiness behind the wheel, whether on a long-distance trip or cross-town errand, at night or during the day. Who among us hasn’t rolled down a window, cranked the radio, or downed a caffeinated beverage to stay awake?

Prevention tips

But none of those can overcome the need for sleep: the average adult should get seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

In addition, Selective Insurance offers this advice for preventing drowsy driving:

• Drive when you are normally most alert. Your body has an internal clock known as its circadian rhythm and it sets itself according to your regular schedule.
• Avoid taking medications that may cause you to become drowsy. Even some over-the-counter medications can dull reaction time and cause drowsiness.
• Take a pre-drive nap to refresh your body and your mind.
• On a long trip, share the driving, taking turns every two hours or 100 miles.
• Don’t rely on caffeine. It may help in the short term, but depending on stimulants to keep you vigilant can lead to micro-naps (where your mind shuts down for four to five seconds at a time). On the highway, that's enough time for you to travel the length of a football field.
• If you can’t stop for an extended rest, find a safe place to pull off the road and take a 20-minute rest.

A Chinese proverb says a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. When it comes to driving, whether the destination is near or far, that first step should be to get plenty of rest before getting in the car.