HEALTHY LIVING
12/25/2012 11:00 am ET

Driving While Drowsy

By Shelby Harris, Psy.D. for YouBeauty.com

With the holiday season officially here, many people find themselves out late at various parties and shopping excursions. More people are sleep deprived and on the roads late at night traveling to visit family and friends.

Despite the widespread knowledge that sleep is necessary to perform in our daily lives, we are sadly a sleep-deprived nation. Most drowsy driving crashes happen between midnight and 6 a.m., when we are biologically programmed to sleep -- a time when more people are on the road during the holiday season.

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First, get the facts about drowsy driving (from the National Sleep Foundation's 2002 and 2005 polls):

  • In the past year, most adult drivers have driven a vehicle while drowsy (60 percent -- the same amount as YouBeauty readers!).
  • One-third of adult drivers have actually fallen asleep at the wheel. Thirteen percent of this group admits to dozing while driving at least once a month.
  • Teens and adults between the ages of 18-29 are at a greater risk of driving while drowsy than other age groups.
  • Men are more likely than women to drive while drowsy (56 percent of men; 45 percent of women).
  • Adults with children in the household are more likely to drive drowsy than those without kids (59 percent versus 45 percent).

Drowsiness and sleep deprivation have repeatedly been linked to problems with judgment, reaction time, short-term memory, attention, concentration and alertness. It can also cause brief "microsleep" episodes lasting 2-3 seconds, with the driver unaware that it even happened.

Being awake for 17 hours straight leads to performance impairment equal to 0.05 percent blood alcohol content (0.08 percent or more is considered legally intoxicated). After 24 hours of being awake in a row, driving performance is equal to someone with a blood alcohol content of 0.10 percent.

Are You At Risk For Drowsy Driving?
Common risk factors include: sleep deprivation, long distances, night drives, 60+ hour workweeks, jet lag, alcohol, long, dark or boring roads. Also, consider any sedating medications you're taking, including antihistamines, cold medications and antidepressants.

If you don't meet any of these risk factors, there are ways to tell if you shouldn't drive. These warning signs include: turning up the radio, rolling down the window, daydreaming, rubbing your eyes, yawning, drifting across lanes, missing exits, trouble focusing. If you have to question whether you're alert enough, best not to drive.

What Can Be Done To Increase Your Alertness While Driving?
There's a number of helpful techniques that can reduce your risk of drowsy driving. Make sure you're getting enough sleep every night for the week leading up to your road trip or late night out.

Brief naps (15-20 minutes tops) are helpful as well. Naps longer than 20 minutes can lead you to awaken in a drowsy state. If possible, take a short nap just before leaving. If that isn't possible, schedule in a rest break every 100 miles or 2 hours. Avoid alcohol and sedating medications and have someone travel with you to split up the drive.

If you begin to feel sleepy while driving, simply stop driving. Pull off at the next exit or rest area (somewhere safe!) and take brief nap. A particularly useful strategy can be to combine caffeine with a nap. Caffeine takes 30 minutes to enter the bloodstream, so taking a 15-20 minute nap just after caffeine consumption allows for the benefits of both methods. Though many people try it, rolling down the windows and turning up to radio volume aren’t particularly helpful in combating drowsiness.

Make sleep a priority and have a safe, healthy and happy holiday season!

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