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Just How Dangerous Is Drowsy Driving?

Very tired woman sitting in the driver's seat of her car

Drowsy driving – we've all done it, right? After all, we live in a hustle culture of sleep-deprived people who are always on the go. How bad can it really be?

Actually, you're going to want to hear this: it's bad ... really bad. Tired driving has been compared to drunk driving and with good reason. Both can play a major role in distracted driving, slow reaction times and more – including accidents.

While getting behind the wheel when you’re sleepy may not seem like a huge risk, the data regarding sleep deprivation and driving tells a different story. But, how tired is too tired? And, how can you avoid drowsy driving with a busy lifestyle? Keep reading to find out.  

What is drowsy driving and who’s at risk?

Single car driving on an empty, remote road Single car driving on an empty, remote road

Drowsy driving is exactly what it sounds like: driving tired. It’s the dangerous and potentially destructive combination of operating a vehicle while sleep deprived and can happen after just one night of poor sleep. Your eyelids may feel heavy, you may have a dull headache, you may yawn more, but sometimes you may not realize you’re too tired until it’s too late.

Who’s most at risk? Essentially, any teenager or adult who regularly gets less than six hours of sleep a night is at risk. There are also quite a few physiological and lifestyle factors that could put a person at risk of drowsy driving. Some common ones include:

Certain medications, as well as alcohol, can also cause drowsiness, and you should never drive while under the influence of either! It’s also worth noting that many drowsy driving accidents involve a driver alone in their car driving off the road or into another lane head-on at a high speed.

Why is drowsy driving so dangerous?

Man pulled over at the side of the rad and restingMan pulled over at the side of the rad and resting

The CDC reports that 1 in 25 adult drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel in the last 30 days. This is even scarier considering that as many as 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be linked to tired driving. Driving while sleep deprived is a fatal risk.

Yet drowsy driving doesn’t receive nearly the amount of attention that drunk driving or even texting while driving does. And while alcohol impairment can be accurately measured, sleep deprivation is not so easily defined. In fact, experts think that drowsy driving accidents are often mistakenly attributed to other errors and severely underreported. That said, the dangers of falling asleep at the wheel are clear. Drowsiness impacts a driver’s:

  • Ability to focus
  • Judgement
  • Decision-making
  • Coordination
  • Reaction time
  • Emotional response/stress level

Sleep deprivation and drunk driving: are they the same?

Not to be dramatic but driving tired can be just as dangerous as drunk driving. Though not identical, they result in many of the same consequences. Both conditions slow reaction time and impair the driver’s alertness and ability to make decisions.

In fact, drunk driving and drowsy driving result in a similar number of crashes each year. Did you know that after 18 hours straight of being awake, the effects of sleep deprivation on reaction time, hand-eye coordination, ability to multi-task and vigilance are equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.05%? After 20 hours of being awake, that number goes up to 0.08%. And after 24 hours, it increases to 0.1%.  

Also, as an aside: alcohol and sleep have an interesting relationship that’s worth understanding.

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10 Signs you’re too tired to drive

How tired is too tired? That’s the big question, right? Of course, we can’t give you any definitive answer here, but the more you learn about drowsy driving, the better you can assess yourself.

Drowsy driving is more likely to occur between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. or in the late afternoon during the post-lunch slump. If you find yourself on the road during these times, pay attention to the common warning signs:

  1. Frequent yawning
  2. Drooping or nodding head
  3. Heavy eyelids or frequent blinking
  4. Drifting and swerving between lanes
  5. Hitting rumble strips on side of road
  6. Tailgating other drivers
  7. Missing signs or exits
  8. Daydreaming or trouble focusing
  9. Poor recall of the last few miles
  10. General feelings of dozing off

If you find yourself fighting the fatigue while you’re already on the road, pull over as soon as you safely can. In the meantime, ward off sleepiness by opening the windows, turning up the air conditioning, turning on the radio, talking to passengers if you have any, or calling someone to talk – hands-free of course.

Woman leaning on her steering wheel and restingWoman leaning on her steering wheel and resting

 HAPPY HABITS: How to get better sleep from the get-go!

Healthy organic sleep space for more restorative sleepHealthy organic sleep space for more restorative sleep

Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to prevent drowsy driving before you ever reach that point. Getting a good night’s sleep beforehand is what will be most effective to prevent drowsy driving. Here are a few of our favorite sleep hygiene tips to help you get a better night’s sleep:

  • Stick to a sleep schedule and aim to consistently get at least 8 hours of sleep each night.
  • Reduce your exposure to blue light and use of electronics once the sun goes down. Try wearing blue light blocking glasses if you do need to be on your devices after dark.
  • Avoid alcohol and any other sedatives as these substances can interfere with sleep and leave you drowsy the next day.
  • Create a relaxing and restorative environment for restful sleep. Switch to an organic mattress and bedding, invest in an air purifier for the bedroom, incorporate warm amber lighting, and sleep in a dark, cold, quiet space.
  • Embrace a bedtime routine to wind down. Gentle yoga, a bath, journaling, reading, or sipping some herbal tea can help relax your nervous system and mind to improve your sleep quality.

If you have a long drive ahead of you, there are a few other things you can do to prepare ahead of time. For example, try mapping out your drive beforehand to include rest stops to give yourself breaks. And, in this situation, caffeine and healthy snacks can be a good thing! Lastly, if you find you’re experiencing repeated drowsy driving, remember this may be related to an underlying health concern, so schedule time with your doc to help identify the root cause. Staying safe means staying awake!

You know what really helps rejuvenate your mind and body – self-care! We have some simple self-care ideas right here, and you can get more over on the Happsy blog.