The Dangers of Drowsy Driving

Driver falling asleep behind the wheel

Tom stayed up late preparing for a business meeting, stopped by his elderly mother's house early in the morning to help her get dressed, and now he can barely keep his eyes open. He's drifted onto the rumble strips three times already since he got on the highway!

Most people know the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. They've heard that talking on the phone or texting while behind the wheel can cause an accident. Now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has added another D to their list of driver impairments, warning us that we should never drive while drunk, drugged, distracted—or drowsy.

NHTSA estimates that each year, 100,000 car crashes are caused when a driver drifts off to sleep while operating a vehicle—and this includes an average of 1,550 deaths per year. A study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimated that 21 percent of fatal crashes are caused by drowsy driving. And the National Sleep Foundation says these numbers are only the tip of the iceberg. Highway patrol officers may be able to spot signs that a driver is drifting off, but once a crash has taken place, there's no test to determine whether the driver was sleepy, and the driver may not remember the cause—because they were asleep!

Data show that although young drivers are more likely to drive drowsy than seniors are, declining sleep quality in old age means a significant number of older adults get behind the wheel when they've not slept well.

Family caregivers also might be susceptible. They have a lot on their plate, and they're often too busy to get enough sleep. When they do get to bed, they might toss and turn, kept awake by anxiety about their loved one's condition, or by their loved one getting up during the night.

Six ways to lower the risk of a drowsy driving accident

Know the signs. We don't notice the moment we fall asleep in bed, and likewise, we're unlikely to realize we've drifted off behind the wheel until it's too late. AAA safety expert Jake Nelson says, "We should consider the dangers whenever we attempt to push our driving to the limits. We can protect ourselves and everyone else on the road by recognizing the simple signs of fatigue." AAA says that these include:

  • The inability to recall the last few miles traveled.
  • Having disconnected or wandering thoughts.
  • Having difficulty focusing or keeping your eyes open.
  • Feeling as though your head is very heavy.
  • Drifting out of your driving lane, perhaps driving on the rumble strips.
  • Yawning repeatedly.
  • Accidentally tailgating other vehicles.
  • Missing traffic signs.

Be safe when you're behind the wheel. Plan driving trips during the hours that you are normally awake, not into the late hours—and avoid prolonged driving stints. Take a break every couple of hours. If you feel sleepy, pull over and take a brief nap. Have passengers help watch for signs of fatigue and switch driving with you if possible. Don't drink alcohol or eat a heavy meal before driving. And read the labels of medications you take—are they known to cause drowsiness?

Know what helps and what doesn't. Experts warn that rolling down car windows and listening to the radio both are ineffective ways of keeping you awake in the car. Coffee or other caffeinated beverages might perk you up, but remember it takes half an hour for the effect to kick in.

Sleep and driving safety experts concur that the best way to prevent drowsy driving is to get enough sleep! Most of us need at least seven hours of sleep a day. AAA reports that when we get one or two fewer hours of sleep than we need, our risk of an accident is doubled. Said AAA's Dr. David Yang, "You cannot miss sleep and still expect to be able to safely function behind the wheel. A driver who has slept for less than five hours has a crash risk comparable to someone driving drunk." The National Institutes of Health estimates that driving after we've been awake for 18 hours affects us as much as a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent; after 24 hours, that rises to 0.10 percent—surpassing the legal limit in all states.

Practice good sleep hygiene. Even if we go to bed at a reasonable hour, we can still have a sleep deficit if we don't sleep well. To ensure good-quality sleep, follow a regular sleep schedule. Create a sleep environment that's quiet, dark and at a comfortable temperature. Get some exercise during the day. Avoid bringing light-emitting devices, such as your smartphone or tablet, to bed. Choose calm, soothing activities such as reading or listening to soft music to help you drift off. Ask your doctor if any of your medications could be keeping you awake. And speaking of medications, don't rely on sleeping pills, which actually interfere with restorative sleep patterns. Find more sleep suggestions in the October 2015 issue of the Caring Right at Home newsletter.

Seek help for sleep problems. If you experience insomnia, waking during the night, sleep apnea or other sleep problems, talk to your doctor. You may be referred to a sleep specialist. If chronic worrying is keeping you awake, talk to a counselor. If you're a caregiver and must get up at night when your loved one needs to go to the bathroom, or if your loved one has the disordered sleep patterns of dementia, arrange for overnight respite from friends or family. And remember that in-home care services can be provided during the overnight hours.

Doing what it takes to avoid drowsy driving can save your life. If you get behind the wheel when you're fatigued, you risk injury, death, perhaps a hefty lawsuit—and even a jail sentence. No destination is worth that risk. Take the bus, or take a nap!

To learn more about drowsy driving, visit the websites of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Sleep Foundation's

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.