By Julie E. Lee
As fall approaches, the days grow shorter, making our morning and evening drives darker. Because our brains respond to darkness by emitting sleep-inducing hormones, you may feel drowsier while driving in the fall and winter.
Drowsy driving is a serious safety threat, not only to the driver, but to other drivers, passengers and pedestrians. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving is the cause of more than 100,000 crashes each year, resulting in an estimated 1,500 deaths and more than 40,000 injuries. And these are most likely conservative numbers, as drowsy driving is wildly under-reported as the cause of accidents.
Follow these three safety strategies for staying awake and alert on the road.
Know when you shouldn’t drive—and don’t
Drowsy driving behavior is very similar to drunk driving, and it can be just as dangerous. According to one survey, almost 90 percent of police officers had found a driver pulled over for suspected intoxication was actually drowsy. The warning signs are easy to spot. Excessive yawning, missing a traffic sign and difficulty focusing are all signs you may not be alert enough to drive. More serious indications of drowsy driving include drifting out of your lane, having trouble remembering the last few miles and accidentally following too closely behind another driver. If you find yourself exhibiting any of these symptoms, pull over to a safe area.
Plan and prepare for long-distance drives
The most important way to prepare for a long drive is to get ample sleep, at least eight hours, the night before. Having a driving partner and alternating shifts will also help prevent exhaustion for both drivers. With or without a partner, be sure to stop at least every 100 miles or every two hours for a stretch and some fresh air. Finally, check with your doctor or pharmacist regarding your medications, as many prescription and over-the-counter drugs can make you drowsy.
Fight sudden exhaustion
Sudden exhaustion while driving is relatively common, and can be incredibly dangerous. If you suddenly grow tired behind the wheel, the most effective thing you can do is to pull over to a safe area and take a quick nap. A 15-20 minute nap can revive you, but beware—sleeping for more than 20 minutes may make you feel even drowsier. If you have more than an hour left in your drive and are still exhausted after a nap, consider stopping to get a full night’s sleep before going on. You should not rely entirely on coffee or caffeinated soda to keep you alert. In fact, the best way to use caffeine during a long drive is to combine it with a short nap. Researchers from the U.K.’s Loughborough University Sleep Research Center suggest the most effective way to alleviate drowsiness is to drink an 8-ounce cup of strong coffee (or its caffeine equivalent), then nap for 15 to 20 minutes. When you wake up, you will feel re-energized and the caffeine will just be kicking into your system.
For more information, visit www.aarp.org/driving45 or call 1-888-AARP-NOW (1-888-227-7669).
Julie E. Lee is the vice president and national director of AARP Driver Safety, Education and Outreach