8 eye-opening tactics to cope with driving while tired

If you decide to drive without adequate rest, you're risking your own life as well as the lives of other motorists on the highway.

A study of 2010 data by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that drowsy driving was a factor in many road deaths including:

  • 17 percent of fatal crashes in the U.S.
  • 13 percent of crashes resulting in hospitalization.

"People who drive while drowsy have slower reaction times and impaired vision. We recommend that everyone pay attention to their level of fatigue while behind the wheel," says Michael Green, an AAA spokesman.

According to the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, U.S. drivers who were "drowsy, asleep, fatigued, ill, or blacked out" were involved in 1,254 fatal traffic accidents. The institute used information supplied by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  

how to cope with driving while tired You vs. driving while tired: Sleep will always win

Dr. Joseph Ojile, CEO and founder of the Clayton Sleep Institute in St. Louis, says fatigue comes upon drivers very gradually. Many people don't even realize how tired they are until they fall asleep.

Ojiole says it's always a mistake to think you can overcome fatigue through willpower alone. Eventually, your body will demand rest and you will doze off.

"You can't cheat sleep," he says.

Even if you manage to stay awake when driving while tired, the National Safety Council says drowsiness makes you less aware of other vehicles on the highway and impairs your judgment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed data from a U.S. survey on insufficient sleep that was conducted during 2009 and 2010.

The CDC found that among 147,076 respondents, about 4 percent reported having fallen asleep while driving at least once during the previous 30 days.

If you want to avoid an accident, get off the highway or switch drivers as soon as you become sleepy, says David Davila, a member of the governing board of the National Sleep Foundation.

8 tips for avoiding fatigue while driving

The National Sleep Foundation says most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night in order to perform at their best while driving. Here are several tips for staying alert behind the wheel.

1. Make sure you're well-rested when you start a trip.

If you're tired when you start out, you're more likely to be fatigued. "Get plenty of sleep before a long drive," Green advises.

Ojiole says you should be getting consistently good sleep for several weeks before taking a long road trip where you'll be the driver.

2. Drive at times when you normally are awake.

The AAA says drivers shouldn't disrupt their sleep pattern by taking road trips when they normally would be in bed. Ojiole says human beings have an internal clock that tells the brain when it's time to sleep.  

3. Sit up straight when you drive.

The Ohio Sleep Medicine Institute warns that slouching when you drive contributes to fatigue and drowsiness, so maintain good posture.

4. Travel with a companion.

When planning a long trip, try to take along a companion who can share driving duties, the National Safety Council says. If you show signs of fatigue, your companion will be there to warn you.

5. Exercise to avoid fatigue.

Taking breaks for exercise will help you stay alert. The National Safety Council suggests you stop your car every 100 miles or every two hours, get out of the vehicle, and walk around.

6. Caffeine may provide short-term help.

The UCLA Sleep Disorders Center says the use of caffeine can give you a short-term boost to help you be more alert. However, it should not be considered a substitute for sleep.

7. Stop and take a nap if you need one.

Some people believe opening the car window for more fresh air or playing loud music on their car radio will keep them awake.

According to SafeNY, the state of New York's auto safety website, these aren't effective remedies. If you recognize the symptoms of drowsiness, it's best to stop driving until you're rested. Find a safe place to pull off the highway.

8. Seek medical help for sleep disorders.

If you have a medical problem that causes fatigue, the AAA says you should seek medical help to reduce the chances of falling asleep at the wheel. Consult with a sleep specialist or other medical professionals.

According to the UCLA sleep center, common sleep disorders are insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, and narcolepsy, a disorder characterized by daytime drowsiness.

The symptoms of driving fatigue

In order to avoid falling asleep at the wheel, it's important to recognize the symptoms of drowsy driving. According to the National Sleep Foundation, these include:

  • Having difficulty concentrating.
  • Having difficulty focusing your eyes.
  • Having trouble keeping your head up.
  • Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes.
  • Missing exits or not noticing traffic signs.
  • Drifting from your lane, tailgating or hitting shoulder rumble strips.
  • Feeling restless and irritable.

Having trouble remembering the last few miles you've driven.

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