Driving while sleepy is dangerous, no matter how short the car ride or how many distractions are keeping you awake. And people who suffer from sleep disorders are at a much higher risk of making poor decisions, losing concentration, orworst-case scenariofalling asleep at the wheel.
Once drowsiness grips you, there's no way to fight it off. But you may be able to stop sleepiness before it startsand before you set foot in the car.
Plan ahead with caffeine and a nap
If you know you'll be driving for long enough to get sleepy, drink a cup of coffee and take a 15-minute nap before you go. "That way, when you get up, the coffee has kicked in, and the boost from the nap will give you an extra level of energy," says Ralph Downey III, PhD, director of Loma Linda University Sleep Disorders Center in California.
Keep your muscles moving
If you do feel alert enough to get in the car safely, try this trick once you're on the road: Downey's patients like to eat sunflower seeds while they drive, because it takes some effort to crack open the shell with your teeth and work the seed out with your tongue. "When our muscles are moving our bodies tend to be more alert," he says. Still, sunflower seeds won't cure drowsiness any more than loud singing. "The important point is this: If you are to the point of being creative to stay awake and drive, you probably shouldn't be driving."
Consider your risk factors
If you have obstructive sleep apnea, you are twice as likely to have a car crash, and three to five times as likely to have a serious crash involving personal injury than someone without the disorder, according to a 2008 study by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
The older you get, the harder it may be to stay alert at the wheel as well, finds a 2007 study. When French researchers tested sleep-deprived drivers after they were given either coffee or a 30-minute nap, they found that the caffeine boost helped drivers of all ages reduce swerving (compared to a control group who drank decaf). But 20- to 25-year-old drivers were much more likely to benefit from a nap than their older counterpartsprobably because they slept deeper and experienced more restorative benefits, say the authors.
Shift workers, truck drivers, and teens are also at an increased risk for fatigue-related car crashes, because they're more likely to drive after long periods without adequate sleep.
When in doubt, pull over
All those tricks you have for staying alert while you driverolling down the windows, turning up the radio, chugging coffeewon't do a thing if you're already drowsy, says James Wyatt, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. His advice: "If you're falling asleep on your 15-minute ride home, you should absolutely not be driving."
Driver fatigue is responsible for an estimated 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries, and 1,500 fatalities each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. More than a third of adult drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel at least once in their lives, found a 2002 studythree in 10 had nodded off in the previous year.
States across the country are beginning to enact legislation penalizing sleep-deprived drivers, and in 2007 the National Sleep Foundation established DrowsyDriving.org, aimed at education and public awareness. But the final decision belongs to you or your loved ones: If there's any doubt in your ability to drive, don't get behind the wheel.