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7 Tips for Sleepy Drivers

Awake for too many hours and your brain functioning actually becomes equivalent to someone with a blood alcohol level that registers legally "drunk." Drunk behind the wheel is illegal and deadly....but tired behind the wheel is just as dangerous. Dr. Tracey Marks helps you identify the warning signs and offers a wake up call for the holidays.

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Tired Driving is Deadly Driving.

You’d never dream of driving under the influence, but this holiday travel season, many of us will be doing something almost as deadly: driving while sleep deprived. A study published in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine in 2000 found that study subjects with even moderate sleep deprivation (17-19 hours of being awake) performed worse on tests of response times and accuracy than the subjects with 0.05% Blood Alcohol Content (BAC.)  As time without sleep increased, performance fell to the same levels seen in subjects with a BAC of 0.1%. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that driving while sleep deprived is responsible for an estimated 100,000 accidents each year resulting in 71,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths.

While driving without adequate sleep is inadvisable at any time, the holidays present particular circumstances that make it tempting to try and “tough it out,” and drive long distances while over-tired. After all, traveling through the night can mean getting to squeeze an extra day with the family, avoiding daytime traffic and/or letting small children sleep through the journey instead of being bored and restless for hours on end. It’s often difficult for drivers to recognize when they are too tired to drive as one of the symptoms of sleep deprivation is impaired judgment.

How You Can Stay Safe this Holiday Travel Season

Since you can’t trust your own judgment of your alertness, the best bet for safe holiday travel is careful planning to ensure that all drivers get enough sleep before they get behind the wheel. Here are a few tips to help make this happen.

1. Keep your schedule clear for the night(s) before your trip so that you can get a good night’s rest. Avoid drinking to excess or any other activity that can leave you groggy in the morning.

2. Don’t plan to start a trip immediately after leaving a full day of work or school. The longer you have been awake, the greater your odds are of being in a sleep-related accident. Allow yourself time to get some sleep before you set off on your trip. 

3. Be realistic about how much driving you can do at a stretch. Most experts advise driving no more than 2 hours straight before taking a rest. Schedule adequate rest times into your timeline.  While it’s understandable to want to maximize your time with family, it’s better to allow for a bit more travel time to help insure your safety.

3. Driving through the night can be tempting, but the combination of being tired and a lack of stimulation can prove to be a deadly combination. If you have no other choice, drive with a partner who will stay awake with you and take even more frequent breaks.

4. If you find yourself feeling drowsy, pull over at the nearest safe location. Drink a beverage with caffeine (coffee, soda, tea) then immediately take a power nap of fifteen to twenty minutes. Research supports this combo as the most effective at restoring driver alertness, although it is no substitute for getting regular, adequate sleep.

5. If you suffer from insomnia, daytime sleepiness or other symptoms of sleep deprivation, get help now, well in advance of your trip. One of the major causes of sleep-related vehicle incidents besides shift-work is untreated sleep apnea. If your doctor prescribes medication to help with your sleep problem, be sure to ask how this will affect your ability to drive and any precautions you need to take. Getting help now will not only give you a safer journey this holiday, it can also greatly improve the quality of your life.

6. As always, avoid distractions while driving. Put away the cell phone and resist the urge to fiddle with your stereo, GPS or other gadgets while you are driving. Distracted driving is dangerous at all times, but the risks increase as your reaction time and accuracy diminishes with sleepiness.

7. If you are flying or traveling by bus or train, consider taking a taxi or using public transportation to get to your ultimate destination.  It might not be as convenient, but it could be a lot safer than trying to drive after a long day of travel, especially if it is late at night.