By Gina Roberts-Grey
No matter how well-rested you may feel, sitting behind the wheel for a few hours can have you fighting a bad case of the head bobs.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes a year, resulting in 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths.
Driving makes you drowsy in the same way infants fall asleep in their mother’s rocking arms, said Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills, Calif., psychotherapist and author.
“The gentle, even rhythmic tempo of the rocking reverts us back to mother’s womb. It is calming, soothing and gently relaxes us to let go and fall asleep.”
Exhaustion also can play a role.
According to numbers compiled by the National Sleep Foundation, 60 percent of adult drivers—about 168 million people—admit to driving a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year. A whopping 37 percent say they’ve fallen asleep at the wheel.
And driving drowsy can be just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. “If you’ve been awake for 18 hours, your driving is at the level of driving with a .08 percent blood alcohol,” said Steve Mochel, president and owner of Fresh Green Light driving school in New York and Connecticut.
Most people believe opening the windows or turning on the radio can help them say alert while driving. But those tactics are good only for about 30 seconds, and they can’t overcome the brain chemistry pushing you to sleep, said Chris Cochran, assistant director of Marketing and Public Affairs for the California Office of Traffic Safety. “There are only two ways to overcome drowsy driving: sleep and stimulants,” he said.
Stimulants such as coffee or energy drinks can be effective for a while, but they, too, are fighting against those sleep-inducing brain chemicals. However, anything stronger could be counterproductive and lead to drugged driving.
“Sleep is the best answer,” Cochran said.
A restful night’s sleep of six to eight hours (depending on your personal sleep needs) before driving is best. If you’re on the verge of nodding off, pulling off the road to a safe spot for a 20-minute nap may be enough to return your brain’s chemistry to normal levels. However, Cochran cautioned, a nap will only help you get through an hour or two of driving. Then those sleepy brain chemicals will kick back in.
Talking to your doctor about the possibility of having obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) may also help you understand why you feel sleepy behind the wheel.
OSA can lead to waking (consciously or unconsciously) several times a night. That’s why one of the hallmark symptoms of OSA is daytime fatigue; a person is not able to experience restful, restorative sleep.
If you’re sleepy behind the wheel, take this online quiz to assess your risk of OSA and gain insight into risk factors and symptoms you should discuss with your doctor.