The United States is crisscrossed with roads, highways, and interstates. We use them, with the help of our cars, to go just about everywhere: work, the store, to see family, to go on vacation.
According to the United States Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 87% of the trips we make, short or long, are in personal vehicles and 91% of people commute to work using their cars. When it comes to long-distance travel, almost 91% of all trips are in a personal vehicle, as opposed to planes, trains, and boats.
Americans love to drive. It makes us feel independent and provides a sense of freedom that some say can be found nowhere else. With the amount of driving that goes on in this country, it’s no wonder that somewhere around 100,000 of the accidents reported every year are the direct result of driver fatigue. A conservative figured given by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that these crashes result in 71,000 injuries, 1,500 deaths, and $12.5 billion in losses and property damage.
Chances are that at one point in your life, you’ve been too tired to drive. It’s a state brought on by extreme fatigue, which is generally caused by a lack of sleep or the decision to drive during a time at which you would normally be sleeping.
Not only does this behavior put your life at risk, but it could mean you are endangering the lives of others as well. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to determine whether or not you’re too tired to drive, and lots of steps that can be taken to avoid driving under circumstances that could easily result in catastrophic injuries or wrongful death.
Who is at Risk?
Younger adults are much more likely to drive while drowsy than anyone else. In fact, 71% of adults ages 18-29 have driven while fatigued, as compared to 52% of 30-64 year-olds and 19% of those aged 65 and up. This is due, in part, to the fact that younger folks get sleepier than older folks do because the mechanism by which they fall asleep is untainted by insomnia and other sleep problems that often progress with age.
A young person’s likelihood to drive while sleepy is also tied directly to their experience. You people have the tendency to think they don’t need as much sleep as they actually do. They also tend to have little experience with making long drives. While they may have taken a “long” trip in the past, for many young drivers this means they’ve driven a few hours at a time.
So when the opportunity presents itself for them to go on a longer road trip, an 8-hour drive for example, young drivers are more inclined to jump at the chance without considering how much driving that really is. Before they know it, they’re exhausted but continue to push on, increasing the chances that they will fall asleep at the wheel and cause a car accident.
Young people aren’t the only ones who face a great risk from driving while fatigued. The following groups are at risk as well:
- Travelers suffering from jet lag who have to drive after flying.
- Truck drivers who spend long hours in front of the wheel.
- Shift workers and nighttime employees may have trouble driving after a long day/night of work.
- Drivers who are, unknowingly, living with a sleep disorder.
- They’re more likely to drive drowsy than women (56% compared to 45%) and they’re twice as likely to fall asleep at the wheel.
- Those with kids drive sleep deprived more often than those without (59% compared to 45%).
- Drivers who take medications that have drowsiness as a side effect.
- Drivers who have been drinking or are under the influence of illicit drugs.
Your body doesn’t enjoy sleep deprivation, and it has a multitude of ways to let you know that you need to get some rest. If you’re on the road and find that any of the following are true, you may be too tired to drive:
- You’re yawning, blinking, or rubbing your eyes frequently.
- Your head is suddenly feeling very heavy and your neck feels weak.
- Your eyes hurt.
- You’ve run a red light or blown through a stop sign.
- You can’t remember the last few miles you’ve driven or turns you have made.
- You’re following the vehicle in front of you too closely.
- Your mind is wondering and focusing is difficult.
- You missed a turn or exit.
- You’re swerving or jerking the car around.
- You feel restless or irritable.
- Road signs and traffic signals appear blurry to you.
- You haven’t slept recently or gotten a full night’s rest.
- You’re drifting onto the rumble strips and/or shoulder.
Helpful Tips for Drowsy Drivers
An overwhelming sense of sleepiness can strike a driver at any time, so it’s important to have a plan for what to do in the event that you’re driving drowsy with some miles to go before you’re done. If this is this situation you’ve found yourself in, these tips can help you stay safe until you reach your destination:
- Take a break. Stop at a gas station or rest stop and get some fresh air. A 10 or 15-minute walk can help you wake up as well.
- Have a quick nap. A well-lit parking lot in front of a store or restaurant can provide a safe place for a cat nap. Don’t sleep longer than 30 minutes though, as this could end up making you even more sleepy.
- If you’re traveling with others, ask them to drive for a little bit so you can rest and regain your focus.
- Schedule stops for every 2 hours or around 100 miles. It’s a good way to break up the monotony of driving and give your mind a break.
- Have some caffeine. Coffee or tea can help perk you up in about 30 minutes. Just remember, caffeine is good at waking you up but it’s a short-term fix.
- If all else fails, stop driving. There is no true substitute for sleep. If you’ve tried all of the above options and you’re still sleepy, just find a hotel room and call it a day.
How to Avoid Fatigued Driving
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s doubly true when it comes to driving while fatigued. If you have a long road trip or commute coming up, and you’re concerned that tiredness could be an issue, take the following steps to prepare yourself for your journey:
- Get plenty of sleep. At least 6 hours, preferably more, are recommended before a long trip.
- Travel only during hours which you are normally awake.
- Have stops/hotels planned out and don’t push your luck by driving through the night.
- Don’t begin a trip after a long day of work. Take the day of your journey off or start fresh the next day instead.
- Travel with someone whenever possible. They can help keep you alert and take over driving when you need a break.
What the Future Holds
Nowadays, fewer people are driving. They’re taking advantage of mass transit like commuter trains and buses. While driving is slowly on the decline, until we live in a world where every car is driverless, there will always be those who have to spend long hours in the car. That said, there are several technologies that are being integrated into newer vehicles that can help prevent accidents caused by sleep deprivation.
A good portion of the major car manufacturers are working on technology that alerts a driver when they are starting to get drowsy. These systems can track your eyes to see how often you’re blinking, which is one of the biggest signs of sleepiness. They can also keep an eye on your driving to make sure you’re not drifting out of your lane and either alert you or react on their own if you do. Some cars also have forward collision warning systems which use sensors to watch the vehicle in front of you and brake for you if you are in danger of hitting them.
Whether you drive a newer car packed with technology to help keep you alert or not, you should never drive in a condition where you’re too sleepy or drowsy to safely operate a car. If you fall asleep at the wheel, you could all too easily run off the road or drift into oncoming traffic and kill yourself or someone else. No matter how important your trip is, it’s not worth risking your life or the life of an innocent family. Be smart, be safe, and drive alert; always.