Editor's note: This post was originally published in September 2015 and was completely revamped and updated in April 2019 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Falling asleep while driving, or driver fatigue, can have dangerous consequences for the driver of the vehicle and other vehicles on the road. To avoid drowsy driving, know the signs of driver fatigue, keep yourself stimulated, eat healthy, and take short breaks while driving.
The dangers of driver fatigue should not be taken lightly. According to a study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, an estimated 1 in 5 fatal crashes involved a drowsy driver. If you can, try to get at least seven to eight hours of rest the night before a trip. If you're a licensed commercial driver, you will actually be required to follow federal Department of Transportation regulations that govern the hours of rest required before driving.
It's important to keep in mind that driver fatigue isn't limited to long-distance drivers. Anyone can experience drowsiness while behind the wheel, especially if you've been working long hours, perform shift work or physically demanding tasks, or are impacted by sleep apnea.
1. Know the signs of driver fatigue
The best defense against the dangers of driver fatigue is to know when it is affecting you. This will give you the time to act quickly and prevent a vehicle accident.
The most common sign of driver fatigue is a burning or heavy sensation in the eyes. This is your body slowly losing the fight to stay awake as it becomes harder and harder to keep your eyes open. If you are at this level of driver fatigue, you need to stop driving immediately and pull over. This sign is the final warning before you fall asleep at the wheel.
There are other signs to be aware of that will give you more time to prevent drowsy driving. Frequent blinking is often a precursor to the heavy or burning sensation of the eyes. You may also experience shallow breathing and a tingly or numb sensation in your limbs as you begin to become fatigued. The earliest signs of driver fatigue include muscle twitching and back tension.
2. Keep your mind and body stimulated
Contrary to public belief, tricks to keep yourself awake like smoking, turning up the radio, and opening the window are not really lasting cures for drowsiness. While these passive activities may make you feel more awake for a few moments, they're not going to help you maintain an ongoing level of alertness as your body becomes accustomed to them.
Instead, you'll want to do activities that still keep your mind and body stimulated. Chewing gum is an excellent example, as it exercises your jaw muscle and requires a small amount of thought to maintain. This will allow you to stay alert without resulting in distracted driving.
You can also switch between slight variations in your driving speed. Don't use cruise control, as it makes driving too passive and allows your body to succumb to driver fatigue. Instead keep your body involved in the driving. You may even want to adjust your seating position. Keeping your head up, shoulders back and legs flexed at a 45-degree angle are good ways to prevent getting too comfortable while driving.
3. Watch your diet
Food that is rich in protein and carbohydrates have been found to make a person feel sleepy. Protein and carbohydrates help the body produce and absorb serotonin, a chemical that plays a role in regulating sleep cycles. The more serotonin that is in your body, the greater the chance of you will find yourself feeling more tired.
You'll want to avoiding eating large amounts of poultry, eggs, milk, and cheese before long trips. These foods are high in protein that may make your body product more serotonin. You should also avoid foods that are rich in carbohydrates, which include pasta, rice, white bread, cakes, and donuts.
How much food you eat can also affect your chances of going into a driver fatigue food coma. When you eat a meal, your blood sugar will rise, which is followed by a overall decrease in energy. The larger the meal, the higher the blood sugar will rise, and the harder your energy will crash.
Instead you should eat light, frequent meals over large heavy ones. This will help prevent you from driver fatigue as well as from going hungry!
4. Take short frequent breaks
If you need to stay fully alert while driving for long period of time, it's best to schedule in regular breaks. Take breaks every 2 hours or 100 miles and walk around for around 10 minutes. This will help keep your body alert and refreshed as you go along your journey.
If you are experiencing severe signs of driver fatigue, it is best to take a break to let your body recover enough for you to continue. Look for a safe space to pull over and take a quick power nap.
Naps should last between 10 and 20 minutes. Any longer and you'll enter the deeper stages of sleep, which will make you feel groggy when you wake up and negate the benefits of a power nap. Upon waking, give yourself at least 15 minutes to fully recover before getting back on the road.
Additional tips as driver safety training
These tips for fighting driver fatigue can save your life and others' from a serious accident. It is critical that any CMV driver is aware of them, as well as other important information to avoid driving hazards.
We highly recommend that these tips and others are included as part of CMV driver safety training. The Department of Transportation already requires companies to provide training such as dealing with drug and alcohol abuse. Providing additional training on topics such as avoiding driver fatigue will keep drivers safer, reduce costly accidents, and improve regulatory compliance.
Receiving driver safety training can help you to develop strategies to improve your driving habits, both on and off the job.