Drowsy driving, or nodding off at the wheel, is no laughing matter. Drowsy driving can be linked to nearly 328,000 car accidents every year. Some populations like teens or those whose employment requires work in off hours are at higher risk for drowsy driving than the average person. Being aware of and knowing the risks gives you a chance to take action before you find yourself on the open road.

Teens

While the average adult needs seven to eight hours of sleep each night, teens require at least nine hours to function at their best. Along with that, the adolescent body reacts differently to sleep deprivation than that of an adult. Teens are better able to resist drowsiness, which means they often push the limits. However, once they’ve reached their fatigue threshold, they fall asleep far quicker.

The schedule and lifestyle of many teens also put them at high risk for sleep deprivation. Early start times combined with a change in the circadian rhythms of teens causes a shift in their sleep schedule. Where they once got tired at 9 pm, they often find themselves wide awake until 11 pm. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that high school students who attended a school with a later start time experienced fewer car accidents that students with an early start time.

Work-Related Sleep Deprivation

Some occupations put workers at higher risk for sleep deprivation and drowsy driving than others. At risk populations include:

  • Shift workers
  • Commercial vehicle drivers
  • Business travelers

Shift workers battle against the body’s own circadian rhythms, which naturally makes the body feel sleepy between the hours of 12 am – 6 am. After a long shift, many shift workers struggle to keep their eyes open. Commercial vehicle drivers find themselves in a similar situation wherein they’re on the road when the body naturally wants to rest. Business travelers suffering from jet lag may have a long drive home from the airport. Extreme flight times, either late or early, can lead travelers as well as flight crews to drive while drowsy.

Lower the Risks, Sleep More, Drive Smart

If you or a loved one is at high risk for driving while drowsy, you can take action to prevent an accident. Working to develop good sleep habits is a good place to start.

  • Keep a Consistent Bedtime: Once you know how many hours of sleep you need, make an effort to keep a consistent bedtime that allows you get enough sleep.
  • Wake Up at the Same Time Every Day: Your circadian rhythms like consistency, even on the weekends. Try to avoid sleeping in if you can.
  • Create a Sleep Sanctuary: Even if you are getting the hours of sleep you need, you might not be getting high-quality sleep. Keep your bedroom dark and cool, between 60-68 degrees at night. Make sure your mattress offers good support and isn’t lumpy.

Even if you’ve got good sleep habits, there will be times when you find yourself struggling to stay awake on the road. Here are a few tips to try:

  • Pull Over at a Rest Stop: Even a solid 15-20 minute nap can help you get home safely.
  • Chew Gum: While not a long-term solution, chewing gum works the jaw muscles and stimulates your body. Strong flavors like cinnamon and spearmint can give you a quick jolt to stay awake.
  • Drive in Daylight: The brain knows it should be awake in daylight and will work to keep you alert.
  • Play Upbeat Music: Turn on upbeat music and let it give you the lift you need.

Author, Ben DiMaggio. Ben is a researcher for the sleep science and health organization Tuck.com. Ben specializes in investigating how sleep, and sleep deprivation, affect public health and safety. Ben lives in Portland, Oregon. His worst sleep habit is checking his email right before bed.