How to Make Sure You Don’t Fall Asleep at the Wheel

by: Ben DiMaggio, Tuck Sleep Foundation

drowsy driving causes accidents     Every year, nearly 6,000 fatal car accidents are attributed to drowsy driving. Accidents that don’t result in a fatality can leave survivors with brain trauma or back and neck injuries that can affect the victim for the rest of his life. But, you can take action to make sure you don’t fall asleep at the wheel.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

     Shift work, medical conditions, and stress are only a few of the reasons you might be getting less than the seven to eight hours of sleep you need. Some people have chronic insomnia while others go through periods where sleep remains elusive. That lack of sleep takes its toll on the body, and when you’re driving, it shows. Sleep deprivation causes:

  • slowed response times
  • impaired reasoning
  • mood changes, particularly in aggression
  • short-term memory loss
  • difficulty processing information

     With impaired judgement come accidents that are otherwise preventable. Making high-quality sleep a priority is the first step in protecting you and your family while on the road.

Prevention Starts at Home

     Your habits, the food you eat, and the decisions you make about your health all affect the quality of sleep you get. Good sleep hygiene starts first thing in the morning.

Consistent Bed and Wake Times

     The time at which you get up in the morning affects when you get tired at night. Circadian rhythms, all those actions and cycles your body performs every day, depend on consistency to release hormones at the right time. Having a consistent bed and waking time helps your circadian rhythms get in sync so that your brain automatically triggers the sleep cycle at the same time every night. You might be tempted to sleep in on the weekends, but keeping your sleep schedule consistent contributes to deeper, better quality sleep.

Turn Off the Screens

     What if you’re not tired at bedtime? It might be because of too much screen time. Circadian rhythms are largely dependent on light. The artificial light from televisions, laptops, iPads, smartphones, and e-readers cause the brain to think it’s time to be awake. Shut down screens at least an hour before bed to give your brain a chance to adjust. If reading helps you fall asleep, get comfortable and be sure to read a hard copy in bed.

Exercise Early in the Day

     Exercise promotes good sleep because it fatigues the body, but a strenuous workout done too close to bedtime can work against you. The rise in body temperature and release of adrenaline can keep your heart pumping and brain awake long past bedtime. Exercising in the morning or at least four hours before bedtime gives your mind and body the time it needs to come back to a calm, ready to rest state.

Take Action When You Know You’re Drowsy

     Prevention is important, but it’s no guarantee you won’t get drowsy behind the wheel. As a responsible driver, you have several options:

  • Pull over at a rest area, gas station, or other safe location and take a 15-minute nap.
  • Drive with a buddy so you can change drivers when you get fatigued. For long drives, switch drivers every two hours to keep everyone fresh.
  • Avoid driving between the hours of 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. Your body is hard-wired to be drowsy while it’s dark. 

Ben DiMaggio is a researcher for the sleep science and health organization Tuck.com. Ben specializes in investigating how sleep, and sleep deprivation, affect public health and safety. Ben lives in Portland, Oregon. His worst sleep habit is checking his email right before bed.

Tuck Sleep Foundation is a community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources. Tuck has been featured on NPR, Lifehacker, Radiolab and is referenced by many colleges/universities and sleep organizations across the web.

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