Alaska Sleep Education Center

Drowsy Driving: The Dangers of Microsleeps and Sleep Deprivation

Posted by Laci Michaud on Jun 1, 2016 8:00:00 AM


We have all heard the horror stories that happen when people get behind the wheel intoxicated.  There are groups and organizations specifically dedicated to stopping drunk driving, such as mothers against drunk driving (MADD) and students against drunk driving (SADD)

Driving while impaired is not a subject that should be taken lightly by any means, but have you heard of a lesser known driving condition that can negatively affect a person’s ability to drive safely? It is known as “Drowsy Driving” and can be just as deadly as drunk driving.

What is Drowsy Driving?

Drowsy driving is defined as driving sleepy or fatigued.  Chronic lack of sleep clogs the mind and slows reaction time.  Despite the very real dangers associated while driving when sleepy, it is very common in today’s society especially with teens and young adults, truck drivers, and shift workers.

The National Sleep Foundation estimates that roughly 168 million people have driven drowsy in the last year.  That is 168 million potential accidents.  That’s 168 million potential deaths.  It is a scary statistic to consider because anyone behind the wheel could be unintentionally driving drowsy.

How impaired are drowsy drivers?

Tired drivers may not be aware of the correlation between how lack of sleep and intoxication can be comparable safety hazards on the road.  Below is a list of some facts on how dangerous drinking and driving is to sleep deprived driving:

  • Car_Accident-439185-edited.jpegSimilar impairment to drunk driving or distracted driving

  • Blood alcohol levels between .05-.08 = 18 hours of wakefulness.

  • In several clinical and field studies conducted by major news outlets in conjunction with scientists, drivers actually performed worse in a sleep deprived state than they did while under the influence of alcohol.

Even accidents that are not explicitly reported as sleep-related can be influenced by drowsiness.  Wrecks caused by drowsy drivers are often severe or deadly because the driver makes little attempt to avert the accident.

Investigators have often noticed the absence of skid marks or other signs of braking to avoid the accident, which suggests evidence of microsleep.

Microsleeps and Driving

A microsleep is defined as “the process of entering incredibly short periods of very light sleep which typically occur whilst undergoing monotonous tasks which have been completed habitually before, hence requiring the least amount of attention”. 

These brief, unintended episodes are normally accompanied by blank stares, head bobbing, and prolonged eye closure.  It is unclear what happens to the brain during these microsleeps but it appears certain parts of the brain effectively fall asleep while the rest of the brain in awake. The common description of someone being in a "daze" is a way of describing someone who is this stage.

Below is a video that showcases what lack of sleep looks like while driving:

If for any reason the video does not automatical play you can watch the video here


Tips to Avoid Microsleeps

The first step to avoiding these unconcious mini naps is to become aware of how sleep deprived you really are and to plan ahead before getting behind the wheel.

  1. Get Your Sleep: The average person needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep to function optimally. Receiving 6 or fewer hours of sleep triples your risk.

  2. Schedule Regular Stops: Plan on stopping every 100 miles or 2 hours to give yourself a break and freshen up.  Bring a camera and take pictures of your trip to help wake you up.

  3. Take a Power Nap: Safely pull off the road and take a 20-minute nap to rejuvenate before getting back on the road.

  4. Caffeinate: Experts recommend drinking the equivalent of 2 cups of coffee to keep awake.  It will take 30 minutes for caffeine to enter your bloodstream and start to kick in, so plan accordingly.

  5. Get a Co-Pilot: A passenger can look out for warning signs of sleep deprivation/fatigue and also help with driving when needed.  Plus, stimulating conversation helps keep you awake.

Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation, possibly involving microsleeps, has been responsible for some of the worst well-known disasters of human history including:
  • Chernobyl nuclear explosion

  • Exxon Valdez oil spill

  • Space shuttle Challenger explosion

Studies have linked sleep deprivation to over $31 billion in the US in workplace errors.  Sleep deprivation, fatigue, drowsy driving, and microsleeps are not to be underestimated.  

If you live in Alaska and feel you need help controlling your drowsy driving and would like to speak with a sleep specialist about your lack of sleep, click the link below. 

Chronic Drowsiness

Topics: tired

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