Drowsy Driving: Dangers and How To Avoid It | Sleep Foundation (2023)

Operating a motor vehicle when sleepy is known as drowsy driving, and it can affect anyone who gets behind the wheel. Drowsy driving significantly increases the risk of accidents, leading to a troubling number of injuries and deaths every year.

Given the widespread sleeping problems among adults in the United States, greater awareness of drowsy driving can play an important role in public health. Knowing about the causes, consequences, and prevention of drowsy driving enables drivers to avoid unnecessary risks on the road.

How Common Is Drowsy Driving?

While there is no exact measure of drowsy driving, research indicates that it is disturbingly common. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2005 Sleep in America Poll found that 60% of adult drivers reported driving while drowsy in the past year. Survey data from the CDC indicated that one in every 25 adults had fallen asleep behind the wheel in the past month.

What Are the Dangers of Drowsy Driving?

Drowsy driving is a major contributor to motor vehicle collisions. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2017 drowsy driving led to at least 91,000 crashes, resulting in roughly 50,000 injuries and 800 deaths.

This data likely underestimates the impact of drowsy driving because it’s often impossible to definitively determine whether drowsy driving caused an accident, especially after fatal crashes.

In light of this, other studies calculate that drowsy driving causes up to 6,000 deadly crashes every year. Researchers estimate that around 21% of fatal car crashes involve a person driving while drowsy.

Why Is Drowsy Driving Dangerous?

Drowsy driving significantly increases the risk of car accidents. Microsleeps are when a person dozes off for just a few seconds, and when they occur while driving, it’s easy for the car to run off the road or collide with another vehicle. The damage from these crashes increases when they occur at high speeds.

Drowsy driving is dangerous even if a person doesn’t actually fall asleep. Research shows that sleep deprivation leads to mental impairment that is similar to drunkenness with 24 hours of sleep deprivation roughly equating to a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10%.

This impairment makes a person less attentive to their surroundings and more easily distracted. It slows their reaction time, making it harder to avoid dangers in the roadway. Insufficient sleep is also tied to worsened decision-making, which can lead to risk-taking behind the wheel.

What Causes Drowsy Driving?

Multiple factors can play a role in drowsy driving:

  • Sleep deprivation: Lack of sleep is a leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness, which can induce microsleeps or other dangerous driving behavior. Adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night, but a significant number of adults routinely fail to get this recommended amount of sleep.
  • Sleep disorders: Many sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, cause a person’s sleep to be restricted, interrupted, and less restorative. Many sleep disorders go undiagnosed and, when left untreated, can cause daytime drowsiness.
  • Alcohol: Drinking alcohol can prompt sleepiness while also affecting reaction time and decision-making in ways that increase the risks of auto accidents.
  • Medications: Numerous medications cause sleepiness. Sleep aids, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and dietary supplements, that are taken at night may cause lingering grogginess the next morning. Drowsiness is also a side effect of medications used for many other conditions.
  • Time of day: Auto accidents from drowsy driving occur most frequently between midnight and six a.m. or in the mid-afternoon, which are two times when sleepiness peaks.

Drowsy driving can affect anyone who takes the wheel, but certain people are at higher risk of car crashes related to drowsy driving, including:

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  • People who drive for a living such as long-haul truckers or bus drivers.
  • People who work long hours, irregular shifts, or night shifts.
  • People with serious sleep problems including insomnia or other sleep disorders.
  • Teenagers who have less driving experience and high rates of sleep insufficiency.

What Are Signs That You Should Stop Driving To Rest?

If you notice any of the following signs of drowsy driving, you should look for the next available opportunity to stop and rest:

  • Frequent yawning
  • Feelings of dozing off
  • Tired eyes, droopy eyes, or an increase in blinking
  • Drifting into other lanes or hitting “rumble strips” on the road
  • Inability to remember the last few miles
  • Missing a road sign or exit
  • Following other cars too closely
  • Difficulty maintaining proper speed

Take these signs seriously; they are a warning that you are drowsy and at risk if you continue driving. Exit or pull off the road and rest until you are not feeling sleepy.

How Can You Avoid Drowsy Driving?

Several steps can help avoid the dangers of drowsy driving. Some tips are beneficial right before or during a trip, and others work to build lifestyle habits for healthy sleep.

Before Driving

  • Plan ahead to limit total driving hours: As much as possible, break your trip into smaller segments and don’t depend on extremely long days of driving.
  • Avoid driving during the drowsiest times of day: Your body’s internal clock will usually make you sleepier between midnight and six a.m. and in the early afternoon, so try to reduce your need to drive during those times.
  • Budget time for rest: Make sure to build in time for multiple stops along the way so that you can recharge.
  • Get a good night’s sleep: Focus on getting plenty of sleep the night before your trip and ideally for multiple nights leading up to driving.
  • Avoid alcohol and other sedatives: These substances can interfere with quality sleep and may leave you drowsy the next day.
  • Bring a travel companion: Most drowsy driving occurs when people are traveling by themselves, so if possible, have someone join you who can share driving duties and help keep you alert.

While You’re Driving

  • Watch for warning signs: If you notice any feelings of sleepiness or symptoms of drowsy driving, look for an immediate opportunity to stop and rest. Remember that it’s “better safe than sorry,” so don’t try to power through if you’re tired.
  • Utilize caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant that can make you more alert for a few hours; however, it isn’t a cure-all. When caffeine wears off, you’ll likely get sleepy again, and more caffeine may have diminishing returns.
  • Be wary of “tricks” to stay awake: Some people try fiddling with their windows, air conditioning, or radio to stay awake, but this can draw your attention away from the road. Instead of using these tricks, it’s better to stop and let your body get the rest it needs.

Healthy Sleep Habits

Over the long-term, good sleep is the best protection against drowsy driving. Focusing on sleep hygiene, which includes your habits and sleep setting, can enable better sleep every night.

Examples of sleep hygiene include maintaining a stable sleep schedule, limiting the use of electronic devices before bed, and making sure that your bedroom is quiet, dark, and conducive to uninterrupted rest.

In addition to sleep hygiene improvements, you should talk with a doctor if you have persistent or severe problems with falling or staying asleep or if you regularly have daytime sleepiness. Working with your doctor can identify the optimal approach to enhancing your sleep, which may involve testing to determine if you are affected by an underlying sleep disorder.

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About Our Editorial Team

Drowsy Driving: Dangers and How To Avoid It | Sleep Foundation (1)
Eric Suni

Staff Writer

Eric Suni has over a decade of experience as a science writer and was previously an information specialist for the National Cancer Institute.

(Video) Are You Sleep Deprived?
Drowsy Driving: Dangers and How To Avoid It | Sleep Foundation (2)
Dr. Anis Rehman

Endocrinologist

MD

Dr. Rehman, M.D., is a board-certified physician in Internal Medicine as well as Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism.

References

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FAQs

What is best way to avoid driving while drowsy? ›

How To Avoid Driving Drowsy. Getting adequate sleep on a daily basis is the only true way to protect yourself against the risks of driving when you're drowsy. Experts urge consumers to make it a priority to get seven to eight hours of sleep per night.

What are the dangers of drowsy driving? ›

Drowsiness: Makes you less able to pay attention to the road. Slows reaction time if you must brake or steer suddenly. Affects your ability to make good decisions.

What should drivers do if they become drowsy while driving? ›

If you become drowsy while driving, stop in a safe place and take a short nap. Then get some fresh air and stretch your legs for a few minutes before setting off again. Taking a caffeine-based drink such as coffee may also help.

How do you keep yourself awake? ›

How to Stay Awake Naturally
  1. Get up and move around to feel awake. ...
  2. Take a nap to take the edge off sleepiness. ...
  3. Give your eyes a break to avoid fatigue. ...
  4. Eat a healthy snack to boost energy. ...
  5. Start a conversation to wake up your mind. ...
  6. Turn up the lights to ease fatigue. ...
  7. Take a breather to feel alert.

WHO is especially at risk of drowsy driving? ›

Teenagers as a group are at highest risk for crashes related to drowsy driving; other high-risk groups include patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and other sleep disorders, shift workers, medical house staff, law enforcement officers, and commercial drivers.

Who is affected by drowsy driving? ›

Drowsy driving affects everyone, but especially those under age 25, who make up an estimated 50% or more of drowsy driving crashes. That means interventions focusing on this age group – males especially – can help reduce drowsy driving among those vulnerable.

What is the best method for overcoming the effects of drowsiness drivers ed? ›

If you notice any sign of fatigue, the safest course of action is to stop and sleep. If no motels, rest areas or truck stops are nearby, pull off the road in a safe, well-lit area, lock your doors and take a nap. Even 30 minutes of sleep can refresh you enough to keep going until you reach a safe rest area.

What should you do if you feel drowsy on the motorway? ›

Don't ignore warning signs of fatigue. If you feel drowsy, stop at the next motorway service area, get out of the car and walk around. In extreme cases, have a caffeine drink and sleep for 20 minutes while it takes effect. You can only do this once in a journey; it won't have the same effect if you do it again.

How many accidents are caused by drowsy driving? ›

Each year, drowsy driving accounts for about 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities, according to the National Safety Council (NSC).

Where can you stop if you feel tired while you're driving on a motorway? ›

Where should you stop to rest if you feel tired while you're travelling along a motorway? Explanation: If you feel tired, stop at the nearest service area. If that's too far away, leave the motorway at the next exit and find a safe place to stop.

Why do I always fall asleep in the car? ›

Our minds and bodies are not doing anything except getting ready for sleep, so they become quiet and calm. So in a moving car, your mind and body can go into the same kind of quiet “daze” as they do at bed time. This is sometimes called highway hypnosis and can happen to drivers too.

What should you do if you feel drowsy on the motorway? ›

Don't ignore warning signs of fatigue. If you feel drowsy, stop at the next motorway service area, get out of the car and walk around. In extreme cases, have a caffeine drink and sleep for 20 minutes while it takes effect. You can only do this once in a journey; it won't have the same effect if you do it again.

What is the best method for overcoming the effects of drowsiness drivers ed? ›

If you notice any sign of fatigue, the safest course of action is to stop and sleep. If no motels, rest areas or truck stops are nearby, pull off the road in a safe, well-lit area, lock your doors and take a nap. Even 30 minutes of sleep can refresh you enough to keep going until you reach a safe rest area.

What is the best way for a driver to prevent fatigue quizlet? ›

What is the best way to prevent fatigue on long drive? Rest before the long drive.

What type of driver is most at risk for drowsy driving? ›

Teenagers as a group are at highest risk for crashes related to drowsy driving; other high-risk groups include patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and other sleep disorders, shift workers, medical house staff, law enforcement officers, and commercial drivers.

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