"Your safety and that of others on the road is at risk when you drive while drowsy," says Pat Britz, education and research manager at the National Sleep Foundation in Washington, D.C. "If you are going to drive, make sure you get eight hours of sleep the night before or take a nap on the day you depart," she tells WebMD. Studies have shown that only one-third of Americans get their recommended eight hours of sleep each night.
For long trips, Britz says, drivers should schedule stops or rests every two hours and alternate drivers throughout the trip. Avoid alcohol or sedating medications when driving. "Sleepiness can accentuate the effects of alcohol and vice versa," she says. Sedating medications include certain antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and some antihistamines.
"Two cups of coffee can increase short-term alertness, but it's no substitute for proper sleep," she says. Remember that it takes about 30 minutes for the effects of caffeine to enter the bloodstream.
Recognizing warning signs of sleepiness among drivers also is important, Britz tells WebMD. They include difficulty focusing or keeping your eyes open; trouble keeping your head up; yawning repeatedly; wandering, disconnected thoughts or day dreaming; feeling restless or irritable; trouble remembering the last few miles driven; drifting from your lane or hitting a rumble strip; tailgating; and missing traffic signs or exits, she says.
As more attention is paid to the dangers of drowsy driving, some states are including information about the dangers of it in their driver education programs. Other preventive measures on the horizon include focusing a public awareness campaign on the use of shoulder rumble strips as an effective countermeasure to drowsy driving.
Rumble strips are raised or grooved patterns on the shoulders of highways to alert drivers that they have veered off the road. When tires pass over them, they produce a sudden rumbling sound and cause the vehicle to vibrate. Some research suggests that rumble strips can decrease risk of crashes by as much as 70%. The public awareness campaign will focus on alerting drivers who veer onto rumble strips that they should take it as a warning that they are too tired to drive.
For more information on drowsy driving, contact the National Sleep Foundation.