Alaska Sleep Education Center

The Importance of Sleep for Safe Driving

Posted by Ainsley Lawrence on Mar 29, 2022 12:55:00 AM

Person asleep behind the wheel.

The idea of falling asleep behind the wheel is enough to give most people nightmares. After all, driving a vehicle requires all of your attention and if you lose control, then you could damage your car, hurt yourself, or injure others. If you are in your car a lot throughout the day and you have ever felt sleepy, then you need to make a change right now.

While it may seem obvious, the solution to drowsiness while driving is to get better sleep at night and to adjust your daily routine so that you aren't feeling fatigued when you get in your car or truck. To get a better understanding of the situation, let’s talk a bit more about the dangers of falling asleep behind the wheel and what you can do to stay safe.

The Dangers Of Sleeping Behind The Wheel

If you have ever fallen asleep or felt overly fatigued while driving, you are not alone. In fact, 60% of Americans have reported that they have felt drowsy while driving at least once, and 37% have admitted to falling asleep while operating a motor vehicle. Still, while you may not be alone, that doesn’t make the situation any better. There are many reasons why you may power down during your commute, and sometimes it may be out of your control. For instance, those who suffer from sleep apnea can fall asleep suddenly and without warning. However, in many cases, it is just that the driver is exhausted before they get in the car.

When we look at the numbers and facts associated with this phenomenon, the situation gets even scarier. A survey by the Center for Disease Control found that drowsy driving led to over 83,000 crashes and 886 fatalities during a four-year span. These are all deaths that could have been avoided.

Some drivers may shrug off the fact that they fell asleep at the wheel, considering that they didn’t cause any harm. However, while you may get lucky sometimes, it is important to fix the issue. According to AAA, feeling fatigued while driving is often just as dangerous as driving drunk, especially if you slept less than five hours the night before. That lack of sleep has a negative effect on your ability to focus and makes you much more likely to get in an accident. This is not an issue to take lightly, so if you know you have a problem, it is time to make a change.

How To Stay Safe While Driving

Before you can take the proper steps to avoid falling asleep behind the wheel, you have to understand your particular issue. If you have a medical condition, such as sleep apnea, then it is important that you speak to a medical professional who can create a treatment plan which could include anything from surgery to allergy medication or it could just require changes to your lifestyle, like quitting smoking or losing weight.

The type of work that you do could also increase the likelihood of falling asleep when driving. For instance, those who work overnight can experience extreme drowsiness due to the fact that they have an unnatural circadian rhythm. If you work a third shift position, then you must ensure that you get the sleep that you need during the day so you can perform well while you’re at work and when it comes time to drive home. Truck drivers can also be susceptible to this issue because of the often exhausting nature of the work and a lack of stimulation while driving at night for long periods without a break.

If you feel that you have corrected the root of your issue, but you still want to ensure your safety and the protection of other drivers, then you may want to consider a car with advanced driver assistance systems.

For example, many vehicle manufacturers are starting to add cameras and sensors that can learn your typical driving style. If the vehicle determines that you are drifting out of lanes or constantly slowing and speeding, the system will automatically enable special features to keep you as safe as possible. While you may not want to buy a new car, if you need to drive every day and you know that you have issues with sleep, it may be a wise decision to make a change.

It is worth noting that no matter what your issue may be, make it a point to never drink alcohol or take medications that are known to cause drowsiness before driving. Always read the labels on your medication so you know what to expect.

Improve Your Sleep Cycle

While there could be a number of reasons why you are drifting off while driving, you can reduce your chances of an incident by getting the proper amount of rest when you’re at home. For a healthy lifestyle, doctors recommend getting seven to nine hours of sleep every night. By doing so, you give your body time to recharge and refresh, so you feel fully alert when you wake up. On top of that, sleep also helps your immune system fight off potential disease. If you want to function properly both now and in the future, then you need to make sleep a priority.

If your issue is that you have trouble falling asleep at night, then you may have to adjust your routine. Make it a habit to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends, which will help to recalibrate your circadian rhythm. If you still find yourself tossing and turning, then consider trying some yoga or breathing exercises to put you in a more restful mood. Turning down the air conditioning or opening a window can also help since your body naturally cools when you lie down.

In addition to setting the stage for proper sleep, you should also be careful about what you do as you lie there in bed. While they may not realize it, many people are unable to fall asleep because they stare and scroll through their cell phones while they lay down. The screen emits blue light, which reduces your body's production of melatonin. Melatonin controls your sleep-wake cycle and an imbalance can force your circadian rhythm out of whack.

In the end, if you know that you have a problem with falling asleep at the wheel, then you need to make a change today. Consider the advice and tips described here to protect yourself and your fellow motorists.

What You Can Do

The problem with drowsy driving is that it's not always clear to the driver whether they're driving safely or not. Many people may not realize how fatigued they really are, and may falsely believe that they can fight through the urge to fall asleep. Many drivers may have the attitude "I've done this a hundred times, and never had an accident," but the truth is, it only takes one brief moment of losing concentration on the road for disaster to strike.

  • Plan your driving during times when you're most awake.
  • If you know you're going to take a long drive, attempt to take a nap before leaving.
  • If you begin to feel drowsy while driving, ask another passenger to drive.
  • If possible, pull over at a rest stop for a few hours.
  • Consume caffeine. Caffeine has been proven to promote alertness in tired people, but the effects may only last up to an hour.
  • Don't stare straight ahead. Move your eyes around and focus on things near and far.
  • Seek treatment for any possible sleep disorders. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy has been proven the most successful therapy for obstructive sleep apnea, and certain drug treatments have been shown effective for narcolepsy.
  • If you're a shift worker, talk to your employer about your schedule, or inquire about taking brief 10-30 minute naps during your shift.
  • If working a rotating schedule talk to your employer about moving your next shift "forward" as it's easier on the circadian rhythm to sleep in a little more rather than less.

If you have ever experienced difficulty staying awake while driving, or often feel tired during the day, there is a chance that your symptoms may be due to an untreated sleep disorder. At the Alaska Sleep Clinic, we treat thousands of Alaskans every year for sleep disorders, and for many patients, the most common complaint is chronic drowsiness. Give us a call today and we can help you start sleeping better so you can drive safer.

Chronic Drowsiness

Topics: alaska sleep clinic, tired, driving, safety, drowsy driving, quality sleep, alaska

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