Sleepy? Think before you get behind the wheel


You probably don’t think too much about driving after a night of zero sleep. But it’s not a good idea. Driving tired increases your chances of having an accident and hurting yourself or others.

Sleepiness impacts driving ability by impairing vision, decreasing reaction times, causing lapses in judgment and slowing the processing of information. You must not drive if you are experiencing any of the following warning signs:

  • Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, yawning or heavy eyelids.
  • Difficulty keeping your head up.
  • Lane drifting, swerving, hitting rumble strips or tailgating.
  • Daydreaming, or difficulty remembering driving the past few miles.
  • Missing traffic signs or exits.
  • Experiencing feelings of irritability, restlessness or aggressiveness.

Stop driving if any of these signs affect you while on the road.

Tips to prevent falling asleep at the wheel:

  • Get enough rest. Adults need at least 7–9 hours of sleep.
  • Don’t rush the drive. On longer drives, take breaks and refresh.
  • Bring a buddy. Avoid driving alone on long trips and take turns driving.
  • Break every two hours or 100 miles. Refresh, get a snack, switch drivers or exercise.
  • Rest off the road in a safe place and take a 15–20 minute nap. Be aware of excessive drowsiness after waking up and do not drive again until well-rested.
  • Do not consume alcohol or take medications that cause drowsiness.
  • Do not drive during times when you are otherwise usually sleeping.
  • Eat or drink caffeinated food or beverages to help increase alertness.
  • The National Sleep Foundation, which says, “Drive Alert, Arrive Alive” offers more information on their website.

Remember: Sleep is not a luxury, it is a priority.

More than 18 million Americans (1 in 15) suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) or other sleep disorders. Many people with these conditions do not know it and are not getting the help they need. Untreated sleep disorders can complicate other health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, lung disease and obesity. A sleep disorder can also cause safety and health risks, including fatigue-related accidents and injuries while on the road, at home, on the job, at school or living your daily life.

“Sleep disorders do not discriminate, and can affect any gender or age—from newborns through adults,” says Joyce Lee-Iannotti, MD, medical director, Banner University Medical Center Sleep Center, Phoenix. “Individuals who suspect that they, or their child, may have a sleep disorder should consult their Primary Care or Sleep Specialist physician to provide the next steps in their sleep care plan. Such a plan may involve bedtime hygiene changes, possibly the introduction of medication or a sleep study to diagnose any underlying sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and help with appropriate treatment.”

Paul Barnard, MD, medical director at Banner Desert Sleep Center, Mesa, Ariz. notes that patients who think they may have sleep issues should be prepared to discuss the following questions when visiting their Primary Care or Sleep Specialist physician:

  • How are you sleeping? (normal bed and awake time, duration and # of restful hours of sleep)
  • Do you snore or have you been told that you snore, stop breathing or gasp for breath while you sleep?

Many people may brush off what they consider minor sleep issues, but both doctors say this could indicate a potential problem. Getting evaluated is key.

Find a Sleep Medicine Center near you.

Consider these statistics and facts:

  • Being awake for more than 20 hours results in an impairment level equal to a blood alcohol concentration level of about .08 Percent, which is the legal limit in all states.
  • It is possible for drivers to fall into a state of micro-sleep (lasting about 3–4 seconds) without knowing or realizing it.
  • Drivers between the ages of 16–24 were twice as likely to be involved in a drowsy driving crash compared to drivers between ages 40–59.
  • Approximately 57 percent of drowsy driving crashes involved the driver drifting into other lanes, or off the road.
  • 55 percent of drivers who reported falling asleep while driving said it happened while on a high-speed divided highway.
  • 59 percent of those drivers who reported falling asleep while driving said they had been driving for less than an hour before falling asleep.
  • 26 percent of drivers who reports having fallen asleep while driving said it happened between the hours of 12 noon and 5 p.m.
  • Men (52 percent) were more likely than women (30 percent) to report having ever fallen asleep while driving.
  • In vehicles where the driver was accompanied by a passenger there was an almost 50 percent less chance of being involved in a drowsy driving-related crash.
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving results in more than 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and 100, 000 accidents each year.
  • The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a study showing that the tragedy of drowsy driving involves about 1 in 6 crashes resulting in death, and 1 in 8 crashes resulting in hospitalization.
  • Approximately one-third (28 percent) of Americans admitted that they have fallen asleep behind the wheel. More than half (54 percent) admitted to driving while drowsy.
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