Asleep at the Wheel: The Danger of Drowsy Driving
If you take a second to think about it, you can probably recall quite a few PSAs you’ve seen on the dangers of drunk driving and driving while distracted by your phone—but when was the last time you saw one on the dangers of driving while tired? Nothing really comes to mind, right? In fact, this may actually be the first time you’ve ever stopped to consider this particular driving hazard.
So why isn’t this issue part of any media campaigns? You might think the answer is because it’s such a small problem that it’s not worth the effort, but the reality is that drowsy driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving (if not more). An answer probably much closer to the truth is that fatigue and tiredness is simply so widespread in our population that driving under that condition is considered by most to be a regrettable but minor consequence. But the effects of drowsy driving are anything but minor.
The dangers of drowsy driving
In his book Why We Sleep, sleep scientist Matthew Walker says that drowsy driving is worse than drunk driving, and the reason for this is that driving drowsy leaves you susceptible to microsleeps. Walker tells us that microsleeps
- Last for a few seconds, causing our eyelids to close partially or fully
- Cause us to lose all perception of the outside world
- Happen without us being aware of them
- And cause our motor functions to cease momentarily
This means that if you happen to have a microsleep while you are driving tired, you can completely lose your grip on the wheel or move over into another lane, while possibly going at 60 miles an hour. Walker tells us that one of the major differences you see between drunk drivers and drowsy drivers is that drunk drivers may not brake quick enough in an emergency—but a drowsy driver could neglect to brake completely.
The signs of a sleepy driver
The first step to always being alert behind the wheel is, of course, realizing when you’re too tired to drive. Here are the signs to look for, courtesy of the National Sleep Foundation:
- Trouble focusing
- Heavy eyelids
- Inability to remember the last stretch of road you drove
- Constant yawning
- Bobbing your head
- Drifting from your lane
If you notice these symptoms of tiredness in yourself or your driver, it is extremely important that you ensure the car ride is halted or another driver is able to take over.
Staying alert and alive
The most effective deterrent against driving while tired? Making sure that you’re not tired. While that sounds like a “duh” moment, remembering how vital sleep is to our lives is always important. Exhaustion is your body’s way of trying to tell you in the loudest way possible that it needs to recharge in order to carry out the functions that keep you healthy and safe. The best way to dispel drowsiness and remain alert and in control all throughout the day is to get the right amount of sleep by always adhering to sleep hygiene best practices.
If you do find yourself in a situation where you’re driving and you realize that you’re too drowsy to drive safely, there are really only two options:
- Switching with another driver riding with you.
- Also from Matthew Walker’s book: pulling over somewhere safe to nap for 20-30 minutes. Immediately after you wake up, you can’t just head back out onto the road, either. It takes about another 20-30 minutes for your grogginess from your nap to wear off. This solution is unfortunately not a long-term one, as your body will soon be tired again. The only way to fully recharge is (you guessed it) a full night of good old sleep.
These solutions are, of course, not ideal, and the message you should take away is that the best way to drive safe is making sure you’re getting a full seven to eight hours of sleep every night.
Perhaps the most insidious danger of drowsy driving is simply that it’s a public safety concern that’s received only minimal attention. But—just like drunk driving and phone-distracted driving—drowsy driving fatalities are preventable.
Part of the responsibility lies on every individual driver, to make sure that they are getting adequate sleep. But it’s also going to take the kind of education, broadcasting, and social change that’s helped to drastically decrease the incidents of drunk driving fatalities in recent years. And if people start to sleep better as a result of spreading awareness? Well, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.