Drowsy driving: Tips for avoiding the risk

By Allstate

Last updated: January 1

If you're feeling tired, you may want to think twice before getting behind the wheel. Statistics show that a fatigued driver is three times more likely to get into an accident, says the National Safety Council (NSC). According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drowsy driving results in approximately 90,000 crashes per year.

Learn about some of the people who may risk driving while drowsy and how you can help prevent yourself from being one.

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What are the potential effects of drowsy driving?

The National Sleep Foundation's DrowsyDriving.org notes that a number of essential driving skills may be affected by fatigue. A drowsy driver may experience:

  • Slowed reaction time
  • Impaired vision
  • Lack of awareness of nearby vehicles as well as traffic signals and signs
  • Aggressive driving behavior
  • Reduced hand-eye coordination

NHTSA also notes that a tired driver may experience "micro sleeps," in which a person experiences involuntary bouts of sleep or unconsciousness. These episodes can last a few seconds, which is enough for a car to drive the equivalent of a football field while moving at 55 miles per hour.

These symptoms tend to get worse the more fatigued a person becomes, further diminishing the driver's ability to operate a vehicle safely.

Who may be a drowsy driver?

Although anyone can become drowsy behind the wheel, some drivers may be at increased risked, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They include:

  • Anyone who doesn't get enough sleep
  • Shift workers, including those who work night shifts or long hours
  • Drivers with untreated sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea
  • People who use certain medications that may cause drowsiness

Drivers with these risk factors may want to be especially careful.

How can you help prevent drowsy driving?

Whether you belong to a group with higher risk of drowsiness or not, it's a good idea to take some preventive measures when you're planning to hit the road. Here are a few things you can do:

  1. Rest up. Make sure you've had enough sleep before getting behind the wheel of a car. The National Sleep Foundation says adults typically need seven to nine hours a night.
  2. Limit the effects of shift work. If you work late shifts, you may find it difficult to sleep during the day, which can lead to general fatigue. To help prevent this, the National Sleep Foundation recommends setting a bedtime you stick to every day, making sure your bedroom is dark and quiet and avoiding caffeine near bedtime.
  3. Plan ahead. If you're planning to leave on a road trip, schedule your sleep so you're well-rested for your trip, says DrowsyDriving.org. If possible, travel with someone who can share the driving, and schedule breaks approximately every two hours.
  4. Be aware of medical issues. Whether it's a sleep disorder or a medication that makes you sleepy, be aware of any medical issues you're dealing with and adjust your driving habits accordingly. If you don't know the source of your drowsiness, consult your doctor.

What are the signs of drowsiness?

Even if you take precautions, it's important to watch out for the signs of drowsiness when you're driving. The National Sleep Foundation says that if you experience the following symptoms behind the wheel, it may be time to pull over and rest:

  • Heavy eyelids, trouble focusing and frequent blinking
  • Wandering thoughts
  • Not remembering having driven the last few miles
  • Missing traffic signs or exits
  • Frequent yawning
  • Erratic driving, such as tailgating or drifting into other lanes or onto the shoulder
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Finding it difficult to keep your head up

Should you start experiencing signs of fatigue, the NHTSA recommends you pull over somewhere safe —like a well-lit rest stop. Consider drinking a cup or two of coffee or another drink with caffeine, and take a brief nap. DrowsyDriving.org notes that it will take about a half an hour for you to start feeling the effects of the caffeine. If you're still feeling drowsy (or start to notice signs of fatigue again), it's time to find somewhere safe to get a good night's rest.

If you find yourself getting sleepy while behind the wheel, you may be putting yourself and others in danger. Instead of trying to push through, take a break and rest.