Driving Fatigue: Why It’s So Dangerous

You know the risks of driving under the influence. But what about driving while fatigued? The consequences are more similar than many people think. Here, we break down everything you need to know about driving fatigue, from its biggest dangers to our top avoidance tips. 

What Are the Causes?

Lack of Sleep or Low-Quality Sleep

One of the biggest culprits of drowsy driving is not getting adequate sleep. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37% of U.S. adults get under the recommended minimum of seven hours of sleep. 

Time of Day

Our energy levels naturally dip in the early morning (2 am to 6 am) and early afternoon (2 pm to 4 pm). During these hours, we’re more likely to experience feelings of drowsiness and fatigue. 

Long Periods of Driving

Anyone stuck in traffic, out on a road trip, or working as a commercial truck driver may be at increased risk of the dangers of drowsy driving. The longer you drive, the harder it is to concentrate, and the slower your reaction times tend to be. 

Health Factors

Untreated sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnea, can make it difficult to stay alert on the road. Medications can also cause drowsiness, even common ones like over-the-counter allergy medicines.  

What Are the Dangers?

Your Reaction Times Are Slower

Studies have shown that driving long distances, and even short distances, can result in mental fatigue or drowsiness, which impacts your reaction time, vigilance, and decision-making. In fact, your motor and cognitive skills become similar to what you’d experience if you were intoxicated. If you drive after 20 hours without sleep, it’s like driving with a blood alcohol content of .08% (the U.S. legal limit). 

You Increase Your Chances of Being in an Accident

You’re three times more likely to be in an accident when you’re fatigued. The risk is so high that in 2017, 91,000 police-reported crashes involved a drowsy driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And the real number may be even higher. Identifying fatigue can be difficult, and it’s often not measured when an accident occurs.   

You May Not Realize You’re Fatigued

When you’re drowsy, your judgment becomes impaired, which means you may not even realize just how tired you are. This can lead to a phenomenon called microsleep, which occurs when someone unintentionally falls asleep for brief periods lasting anywhere between a fraction of a second and 30 seconds. Microsleeps are especially dangerous if you’re behind the wheel because you become unable to control your vehicle and react to changes.  

How to Prevent Driver Fatigue

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

The only true way to prevent drowsy driving is to get a full eight hours of sleep each night. To ensure you’re getting high-quality sleep, practice healthy sleep habits, such as having a stable sleep schedule and putting away any electronic devices before bedtime. 

Know the Warning Signs of Fatigue

It can be hard to know if you’re driving while fatigued, so look out for the following indicators that you may need to get off the road and rest.

  • Tired or droopy eyes
  • Excessive blinking
  • Daydreaming or dozing off
  • Trouble remembering the last few miles
  • Missing a road sign, turn, or exit
  • Following other cars too closely
  • Difficulty staying in your lane
  • Hitting “rumble” strips
  • Difficulty maintaining proper speed

Plan Your Drives

If possible, avoid driving early in the morning and in the afternoon—the times when you’re most likely to feel drowsy. If you’ll be driving long distances, you shouldn’t drive more than eight hours in a single day and should aim to take 15-minute breaks every two hours. 

When to Get Off the Road

A good rule of thumb is to get off the road and take a break at the first sign of tiredness. As a temporary fix, carefully pull over to a safe place, drink a caffeinated beverage, and take a quick 20-minute nap. If you’re severely sleep deprived, it’s best to stay off the road completely until you’re well rested. 

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