Americans are overworked and sleep deprived, so it’s no wonder that many of them take to the roads when they should be taking a nap. Drivers who would never consider driving drunk, speeding, or driving recklessly, are often guilty of driving while fatigued and this carelessness is taking its toll. In fact, 60 percent of adult drivers admit that they drove a vehicle while feeling tired in the last year and 37 percent said they actually fell asleep while driving.
How Drowsiness Affects Your Driving
Even if you don’t actually nod off, driving when you are tired affects your driving ability in ways similar to drugs or alcohol. When you are suffering from sleep deprivation, you are less able to focus on driving and react to surprise situations. Drowsiness:
- Makes drivers less able to pay attention to the road.
- Slows reaction time if you have to brake or steer suddenly.
- Affects a driver’s ability to make good decisions.
Obviously, if you actually fall asleep behind the wheel, you could run off the road, collide with vehicles in front of or next to you, drive into oncoming traffic, or hit a stationary object like a tree or a building—but you don’t have to be completely asleep to cause an accident.
Who Is Most Likely to Drive While Drowsy?
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries, and 800 deaths in 2013. Other organizations believe these estimates are low and suspect that fatigued driving may contribute to as many as 6,000 fatal crashes each year. Since there is no way to test for drowsiness following an accident, all drowsy driving statistics are estimates, or are based on anonymous surveys with drivers. What is known, however, is that, while every driver is likely to drive drowsy at some point in their lives, certain drivers are more likely. These drivers include:
- Drivers who do not get enough sleep
- Commercial drivers who operate vehicles such as tow trucks, tractor trailers, and buses
- Shift workers who work the night shift or long shifts
- Drivers with untreated sleep disorders such as sleep apnea
- Drivers who use medications that make them sleepy
- Drivers between the ages of 19 and 29
- Men are more likely to drive drowsy than women
According to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, people who sleep only 6-7 hours a night are twice as likely to be involved in a crash as people sleeping 8 hours or more. Given that many American workers and students report frequently getting less than 6 hours of sleep each night, it is obvious that this is a major concern on our local roads and highways.
Warning Signs That It’s Time to Pull Over
Whether driving to work every morning or pulling an all-nighter to get to a family vacation spot, everyone pushes the limit from time to time. Being aware of when you have become too sleepy to drive safely is important. Watch out for the following signs:
- Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, or heavy eyelids
- Daydreaming; having wandering or disconnected thoughts
- Trouble remembering the last few miles driven; missing exits or traffic signs
- Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes
- Trouble keeping your head up
- Drifting from your lane, tailgating, or hitting a shoulder rumble strip
- Feeling restless and irritable
When you start to experience any of these symptoms, you should pull over at the next exit or rest area and either switch drivers or take a sleep break. A 15- to 20-minute nap can help improve your mood, performance, and short-term alertness. A longer nap could leave you too groggy to continue driving. Drinking a caffeinated beverage can help wake you up, but only if you don’t already consume it regularly. Also, remember that it takes about 30 minutes for caffeine to enter your bloodstream and wake you up.
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