A Crash Course in Drowsy Driving

I am just back from speaking at a medical meeting in Florida. After the meeting I was invited to a dinner that turned into a late evening. Early the next morning I had a long drive to get to the airport. About half way there I felt my eyes getting really heavy. I wanted to keep driving but it was hard to stay awake, so I stopped at a restaurant to stretch my legs, get a cup of coffee and shake out the cobwebs. Has that ever happened to you? Or have you ever driven with a person who was falling asleep?

Would you get in a car driven by a drunk person? Thatís the equivalent of what you are doing if you are driving with someone who is chronically sleep deprived. Studies show that the risks of driving while too tired are equivalent to driving while intoxicated with a blood alcohol level (BAL) of 0.08.

More than 11 million Americans are spending more than two hours a day commuting to and from work. They get up earlier and go to sleep later to make time for work and their other activities. Many are working two jobs to pay the bills. And itís not just the hard working adults. Teens are now routinely staying up late and texting friends or on Facebook late into the night. As a result, the United States has become a sleepy nation. Most people donít get the 7-8 hours of sleep the National Sleep Foundation says our bodies need and you know how that leaves you: so tired that youíre irritable, having trouble focusing, and finding it hard to make it through the day.

Women in menopause get a double whammy because lower estrogen levels reduce rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is when complex issues are processed and much of our restfulness occurs. According to the North American Menopause Society, about 46 percent of US women ages 40 – 54 and 48 percent ages 55 – 64 report sleep problems. For 70 million American adults, too little sleep has become a way of life that is contributing to an increase of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and obesity as well as affecting their concentration and disposition.

Iíll write more about these in future blogs. But for this posting, I want to tell you about one of the hazards of too little sleep that is the most lethal of all: falling asleep at the wheel.

“Not me,” you say. But a 2009 study by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) which was a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research found that 4.7 percent of Americans reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving at least once in the preceding month. Thatís 1 in 20 drivers across the country falling asleep at the wheel one or more times within a month. And those are just the ones who admitted to it. Considering all the traffic we drive in on a daily basis, and how long we spend in our cars, thatís pretty scary. Those drivers who inch right up into your trunk, weave around the road or demonstrate road rage may not be intoxicated; they could be exhibiting drowsy driving. Thatís why 1,500 people die each year from drowsy driving and 40,000 more have non-fatal injuries.

If you find your eyes getting heavy, or you canít remember what happened over the last few exits, or you find yourself opening the window for more air or turning up the radio, listen to your body.

Find a safe place to pull over and either rest a few minutes or take a short stretch. Doing this every 100 miles or every two hours is a great idea in general. Driving during the day and avoiding those marathon all night drives is another great way to stay safe. Having a buddy drive with you to help you stay awake can save your life. Remember, driving a two-ton vehicle at 60 or more miles per hour, you might only get one chance to fall asleep at the wheel.

Find out if you are getting enough sleep. Get instant access to a free sleep diary by going to doctorseibel.com. You can also download my sleep CD Lullabies for Kids of All Ages to help you fall asleep.

5 Health Risks of Too Little Sleep
How to Recover from a Sleep Deficit
6 Bedtime Rituals for Better Sleep


Summerannie Moon
Summerannie M4 years ago

pull over to a safe place and close your eyes and take a nap...10 mins is all you need to get a top up and avoid a deathly crash to yourself or another driver.

As for getting into a car with a person who is DUI you would have to be crazy to do that. Many a person has come off 2nd best or worse and gone to jail here. Its against the law and our laws here say that everyone driving a car must have 000 reading or under .05 and if its worse you could go to jail and lose demerit points, get fined or even lose your licence for 2 or more years and the ultimate here is if you keep getting caught driving your car while disqualified or drunk or no licence then your car will be crushed. Zapped! Gone!
Our laws here in Melbourne Australia are the toughest in all Oz now with other states realising they should up the anti too.

ScoTT Senate
ScoTT S4 years ago

If you have this happen, even once, and you hit someone, and injure them, or kill them, you're going to have to live with that guilt for the rest of your life. Because of how our bodies become more flexible when asleep, it is like a drunk driver, and chances are you will survive without injuries, but the awake driver will tend to be more aware and stiffer, and tend towards being injured or killed. Call a friend. Take a taxi. Walk. Do ANYTHING ELSE. Just DO NOT DRIVE this way.

Joe R.
Joe R5 years ago

A good reminder. Thanks.

Ellie Damann
.6 years ago


cassandra toney
cassandra toney6 years ago

It has happened to me more than once..probably alot of us

Rebecca M.
Rebecca M.6 years ago

This has happened to me as well, twice. Once I crashed into the median strip and busted a tyre (very lucky the median strip was there to save me from oncoming traffic), and the second time the passanger grabbed the wheel. I have felt myself getting 'noddy', and now I always stop and walk around to refresh myself. Not that its good for my weight, but I will often stop at a petrol station and buy something to eat that i can take in the car. Eating an apple, bag of chip of lollies is enough movement and distraction to keep me awake. I have chronic insomnia that numerous doctors and naturopaths haven't been able to help, so I think this is something I will just have to live with.

Nancy P.
Nancy P6 years ago

Let's hope the person who is sleepy at the wheel is not also texting or talking on his/her cell phone!

Sheri P.
Sheri P6 years ago


Abbe A.
Azaima A6 years ago

sleep apnea contributes to this

Patrick Donovan
Patrick Donovan6 years ago

Of course, the best alternative is to avoid private cars all the time. If there is demand for public transportation, then it will be there. Politicians know how to count. I've not owned a car in 30 years. I admit that I live in NY city but it works because people use it and demand it.