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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. In fact, the National Safety Council says that you are 3 times more likely to be in a car crash if you are fatigued.

The impact of driving tired

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 heaving 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 you are experiencing any of these signs while on the road.

How to prevent falling asleep at the wheel

Here are some tips you can follow to ensure your road safety.

1. Get enough rest.

Adults need at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. Driving is much more dangerous when tired. Even a microsleep – a sleep anywhere between 1 to 10 seconds – can be devastating when driving.

2. Don’t rush the drive.

On longer drives, try not to worry about how fast you can get there. Rather, take your time and pull over when you need to refresh.

3. Bring a buddy!

Having someone else in the car can be helpful in keeping you alert – especially if it’s a long trip. Also, take turns driving. Most crashes and fatalities happen with a single driver and no passengers.

4. Take breaks.

Consider taking a break every two hours or 100 miles. Refresh – get a snack, switch drivers or exercise.

5. Pull off to rest.

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.

6. Do not take anything that can cause drowsiness.

Before driving, make sure you aren’t taking any medications that can cause drowsiness. Check the labels before you take anything to see what the side affects are. Do not consume alcohol before driving.

7. Stay alert.

Eat or drink caffeinated food or beverages to help increase alertness.

Read more about drowsy driving from the National Sleep Foundation here.

Sleep is not a luxury – it’s a priority

More than 18 million Americans, about 1 in 15, suffer from obstructive sleep apnea or other sleep disorders. Many people with these conditions aren’t aware of them, so they 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 at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix Sleep Center. “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 and help with appropriate treatment.”

Paul Barnard, MD, medical director at Banner Desert Medical Center Sleep Center in Mesa, notes that patients who think they may have sleep issues should be prepared to discuss the following questions when visiting their doctor:

  • How are you sleeping? (normal bed and awake time, duration and number 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 to be minor sleep issues, but both experts say this could indicate a potential problem. Getting evaluated is key. Click here to find a sleep medicine specialist near you.

This post has been updated. It was originally published on November 11, 2016.

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