Sleep deprivation affects all aspects of life—appetite, strength, emotional stability, and memory. On the road, it’s more than a distraction. It can mean the difference between life and death. Drowsy drivers come from all occupations and walks of life. It’s a threat everyone faces at one time or another. You’re driving home from work after putting in extra hours or a child kept you up during the night and your eyes just won’t stay open. The reasons vary but the results are the same—dangerous driving.
Seven to nine hours of sleep can largely prevent drowsy driving. That gives the body time to heal and recharge. More importantly, the brain has time for regular maintenance. While you sleep, the brain doesn’t shut off. It cleanses itself of daily waste, makes vital connections between old and new experiences, and solidifies memories.
All of that makes sure that reaction times, decision-making abilities, and reasoning are at their best. And those are the very things drivers need to make split-second decisions.
Dangers of Drowsy Driving
In 2013, roughly 72,000 accidents involved drowsy drivers. Nearly 28 to 44 percent of adults report getting less than the recommended seven hours of sleep. A good percentage of those people drive to work and school. Sleep deprivation can affect their driving ability in the same way alcohol does. Tired drivers have a hard time maintaining road position and managing speed.
Drowsy driving-related accidents come with a heavy price. Insurance, medical bills, and the loss of wages quickly add up. And there’s no price that can be put on the loss of human life that comes with the most severe of drowsy driving accidents.
Everyone is at risk for drowsy driving, but teens, shift workers, truck drivers, and other occupations that may have fluctuating work hours are at the highest risk. Any occupation or activity that puts you on the road late at night or early in the morning goes against the body’s need to sleep when it’s dark. These groups need to be more vigilant than others to make sure they get adequate rest.
What to Do If You’re Driving Fatigued
You’ve experienced it—the tired eyes, excessive yawning, loss of time. It happens to everyone. If you have a plan in place before you’re facing fatigue, you can protect yourself and others on the road.
Driving isn’t an endurance event. If you’re feeling drowsy, switch drivers. If you’re alone, pull over in a safe place and take a short nap. A short 15 to 20-minute nap can be enough to reverse some of the effects of sleep deprivation, including those that impair your driving. There are times when pulling over may not always be an option. Roll down the window, turn on upbeat music, or start talking to someone else in the car.
A word of caution: alertness tricks can help, but they’re not fail-safes. Your driving ability won’t improve until you’ve rested.
Getting Better Sleep
The real key is better and more sleep. Adequate sleep assures that your body and mind are prepared and at full capacity. Your body responds to and adapts your sleep cycle according to your behaviour. That gives you the power to improve your sleep quality one day at a time.
Get plenty of sunshine.
Sunlight acts as the body’s regulator. Special cells in the eyes absorb blue light and send signals directly to the area of the brain that controls sleep. Once the brain gets the signal, it starts suppressing sleep hormones. For your sleep hormones to be fully charged and ready to fire at night, they have to be kept locked up during the day. Plenty of light makes sure they’re not flowing when you’re awake and fully prepared for release at night.
Make your bedroom comfortable.
Environmental factors can make or break your sleep. A mattress that relieves pressure points and supports your spine, pillows that keep your neck aligned, and breathable bedding keep you comfortable. The bedroom should also be cool, dark, and quiet so there are no distractions or disruptions.
Love your bedtime.
Your bedtime should be your best friend. Be consistent. Your brain will anticipate your bedtime and release hormones to keep you on schedule.
Create a routine.
Bedtime routines are for everyone. They relieve tension and help you transition into a calm state. Routines can include anything that relaxes you. Favourites like reading a book and a warm bath are popular traditions because they work well. Meditation and yoga are less traditional options that have great benefits for both mind and body. The key to a bedtime routine that works is performing it at the same time and doing everything in the same order.
Caffeine gets in the way of sleep because it blocks sleep hormones for hours after it’s ingested. It generally takes four to six hours to work its way through the body. However, how long it affects you will depend on your personal biochemistry. Err on the safe side, and stop drinking stimulants in the early afternoon.
Advances in technology always come with unexpected side effects. Laptops, televisions, e-readers, and cellphones can all emit a bright light that falls on the same spectrum as sunlight. The body reacts in the same way, by suppressing sleep hormones. Too much screen time before bed can delay the start of your sleep cycle. To limit their effects, turn off your screens two to three hours before bed.
Follow a healthy eating schedule.
Meal timing plays a role in your sleep cycle. Try to eat your meals on a regular schedule. What you eat can influence sleep too. Heavy, fatty foods that cause indigestion or heartburn can keep you awake. If you’re prone to these issues, early light dinners can help you sleep better.
Sleep gives you the best chance of beating fatigue when you’re driving. Give your body the time it needs to rest and recuperate. And drive responsibly. If you’re struggling to stay awake, take action immediately. Fatigue isn’t just inconvenient. It’s a danger to everyone. Adequate sleep is your way to alert, safe driving.
Alicia Sanchez is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com with a specialty in health and wellness. A Nashville native, Alicia finds the sound of summer storms so soothing that she still sleeps with recorded rain on her white noise machine.
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