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Don't Let Long Summer Drives Lull You to Sleep Behind The Wheel

Armen Hareyan's picture

Sleeping and Driving Alert

As vacationers take to the roads, the National Sleep Foundation and
Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center urge drivers to "drive alert, arrive alive."

The Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the summer vacation period, which for many Americans means more time behind the wheel visiting different destinations. It can also mean an increase in drowsy driving, as many people get into their cars for quick getaways feeling tired or fatigued.

Sixty percent of adults licensed to drive say they have driven drowsy in the past year, according to the National Sleep Foundation's (NSF) 2005 Sleep in America poll, up from 51% in 2002, the last time NSF polled about the issue. Those most at risk for a sleep related crash include younger male drivers, shiftworkers, and people with undiagnosed sleep disorders, according to NSF.

"With more and more people admitting to driving drowsy, there's a good chance you will be on the road near someone who is sleepy, and is a danger to themselves and others. Drowsy driving has become a major public safety issue," says Richard L. Gelula, NSF's chief executive officer. "When you get behind the wheel of a vehicle, whether it is for a short drive or a longer excursion, make sure you are fully awake and alert. Remember NSF's drowsy driving campaign theme: drive alert, arrive alive," Gelula adds.

The summer season has many factors that can result in disturbed sleep and sleepiness from medications taken for allergies, to the pain from sunburn, and uncomfortable heat and humidity. Whatever the cause, sleepiness may result in delayed reaction times, diminished judgment and vision, problems with information processing and short term memory, as well as decreased performance and even moodiness and increased anger.

"There are definite warning signs of drowsiness that drivers should be aware of," according to Mark Mahowald, MD. "When you feel your eyelids begin to droop, feel the need to roll down the window or turn up the radio, you are yawning a lot and have trouble focusing your vision, then you know you need to pull off the road in a safe area and take a nap." Mahowald notes that caffeine promotes short-term alertness, but takes about 30 minutes to begin working if taken in liquid form, and its effect is diminished if the user regularly consumes caffeine. "It's a good idea to drink a caffeinated beverage and take a nap while you wait for the caffeine to kick in," says Mahowald.

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Unfortunately, many drivers don't take the time to pull over and nap when they become drowsy. Rather, they continue the trip, hoping they can overcome it and arrive on schedule. Many fail to recognize other warning signs of drowsy driving that include trouble remembering the last few miles driven, missing exits or traffic signs, drifting from the lane or tailgating and daydreaming.

Before getting behind the wheel, especially for a long drive, NSF and the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center recommend the following tips to stay alert:

  • Get a good night's sleep. While this varies from individual to individual, sleep experts recommend between 7-9 hours of sleep per night.

  • Drive with a companion. Passengers can help look for early warning signs of fatigue or switch drivers when needed. Passengers should stay awake to talk to the driver.

  • Allow time for breaks every 100 miles or 2 hours.

  • Avoid alcohol and medications (over-the-counter and prescribed) that may impair performance. Alcohol interacts with fatigue, increasing its effects, just like drinking on an empty stomach.

  • Avoid driving during or close to times you would normally sleep, especially overnight. Natural sleep rhythms create more sleepiness at these times.

For more information about drowsy driving, visit NSF's special Web site, www.drowsydriving.org

The Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center at Hennepin County Medical Center works with the National Sleep Foundation to educate people about the importance of sleep and the treatment of sleep disorders. For more information about sleep disorders, contact the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center at 612-873-6201.