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Under the Influence...of Drowsiness

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says driving when you're tired can be as deadly as driving after drinking.

The NHTSA states that each year numerous vehicular crashes and deaths are caused by drivers who are impaired by sleepiness. Many of these crashes involve a sober driver in a lone vehicle. But the problem of sleepy drivers is larger than these figures indicate, because they don't include accidents that occur during the daytime and don't include crashes involving more than one vehicle.

Drivers who reported drifting off while driving had an average of six hours of sleep the night before, but about a quarter had less than five hours of sleep. Drivers who fell asleep had been driving an average of three hours, and more than half were driving on an interstate highway going at least 55 mph.

You can't be concentrating on driving safely if you are fighting to stay awake. Here are some tips that can help you to be an alert driver:

  • Sleepy time. Don't drive during the times you usually are asleep. It helps to understand your body's sleep and wake cycle. Most people need about eight hours of sleep each night, and their bodies become accustomed to sleeping—or wanting to sleep—during that block of time. Besides the period between midnight and 6 a.m., mid-afternoon may also be a problem, because of the energy slump that arrives shortly after lunch.

  • Medication alert. Watch out for medicine that makes you drowsy. Your health care provider and pharmacist are good sources of information for this. Check the packaging of the medicine for advisories. Allergy medications, products for coughs and colds, obvious drugs like sedatives, and many others can make you sleepy.

  • Divide your drive. Know your limits for how long you can drive at one time and for one day. Young drivers, especially teenagers and males between ages 16–24, are prone to attempting long hauls. It's harder to stay alert as the hours on the road pile up. Break up the trip into safer segments.

  • Train a copilot. If you have company for the ride, make that person your copilot, who periodically asks you how you feel during your drive, adjusts the radio, watches out for rest stops, and trades driving duty with you if you feel tired or seem to be having trouble concentrating.

  • Think about how you feel. You check your speed, odometer, and gas gauge. Consider how the most important feature of the car is doing—the driver. If you are having trouble concentrating, focusing your eyes, or even remembering driving the last few miles, then it's time for to pull over and stop for a rest or a nap.

Singing with the radio, slurping coffee, blasting cold air on your face, and other remedies may help you stay alert a bit longer. But don't let these quick fixes mask your tiredness. Follow the cues your body is giving you and get some rest.