How to Stay Awake While Driving

Sunset over a congested highway

Several times a year I’m required to drive to Canberra for work. It’s a 400-mile round trip, separated by six hours of meetings and presentation. By the time I get in the car to drive home, I’m exhausted.

Staying awake at the wheel is not just a problem for long-haul truckers.  The longer we spend driving, the greater the risk that tiredness will affect our ability to drive safely.

The best way to stay awake while driving is to set off in the morning after a good sleep. If you drive regularly, it’s worth considering a vehicle fitted with the latest Driver Assistance safety features. Otherwise, regular breaks for a nap or exercise, staying hydrated by drinking water, and plenty of cold, fresh air will also help.

What causes sleepiness?

Truckers refer to it as ‘highway hypnosis.’ The monotonous noise of the tires on the tarmac and the low hum of the engine. It does a great job of sending the kids off to sleep in the back seats. Ironically, modern vehicles may make falling sleeping easier, thanks to improved soundproofing, a smoother ride and features like climate control and heated seats.

We’re also pushing our bodies further. People like me are making the decision to live outside the city and commute to the office. We’re waking up earlier, traveling further and spending more time on the road. All the while, still putting in the same number of hours at the office.

If this is your situation, the chances are, you’re exhausted before you even start the journey home. And, whether we’re commuting for work or vacation, congestion on the roads is compelling us to avoid the worst of the traffic by driving when we’re usually asleep.

How to Recognize Signs of Tiredness?

If the description above sounds like you, what are the signs you should look out for? How can you tell if you’re about to doze off?

There are the obvious things – repetitive yawning and heavy eyelids. However, there are other, not so visible signs, such as getting lost in your thoughts and zoning out. A simple test is to try remembering the last five minutes of your journey – like road signs or vehicles you passed.

Forgetting recent events on your journey is a strong indication you could do with a break. At this stage of tiredness, your reaction times are probably way lower than normal, even though you might feel ok. If you’re drifting between lanes you shouldn’t be driving, plain and simple. If you notice this kind of behavior, you should pull over and have a nap.

Traditional Methods of Staying Awake.

One of the best solutions for staying awake is to have a buddy or family member with you, to share the drive.

I previously worked for an engineering company, who were responsible for maintaining the radio infrastructure around Australia. Australia’s a big place, and Aussie’s don’t think twice about driving 10 or 12 hours to their destination. The company I worked for would always send out two people, even if the job only required one. The sole purpose was to allow the engineers to share the drive, and I’ve no doubt the decision saved lives. Some of the stories the guys would recall about driving those long distances – it would make your hair stand on end!

Of course, unless you’re on vacation, the likelihood of having someone to share your drive are slim.

I mentioned some of the tried and tested methods of staying awake at the start of this article: Keeping cold by having either the windows down or the air conditioning set to freezing, is one method. Another is to stay hydrated by drinking water, and frequently stopping to stretch or take a nap, are also recommended.

I’ve read that some people find eating or chewing sunflower seeds also work. It’s a combination of having to remove the shells and the salt in the seeds, which apparently keep the brain alert and focused.

Power napping for 10 to 15 minutes has proven to be very beneficial. Just being able to get a bit of sleep during your journey is going to help. Although, if you can doze off for 10 minutes by the side of the road, you’re clearly very tired.

What Not To Do.

Having a coffee will help in the short term but overdosing on caffeine is probably not the answer.  Similarly, energy drinks and sweets offer nothing more than a quick sugar rush followed by an inevitable slump. Any solution that is based on sugar is a bad idea, and equally bad for your health.

Having a heavy meal before setting off or during your trip will also increase tiredness. Steer clear of fast food and meals high in saturated fat. Look for ingredients high in B and C vitamins. There should be plenty of color on the plate, especially green.

 

Take Advantage of New Technology.

Car manufacturers, while finding ways to make our journey more comfortable, are also implementing technology to combat driver fatigue. Many car manufacturers now include driver assistance safety features as standard. While the names of these features differ, the underlying technology is similar, if not identical. If you’re in the market for a new car, the main features to look out for include:

  • Collision Prevention. Also known as assisted braking, the car will automatically apply the brakes if it senses a potential collision up front. The latest systems claim to be able to detect both cars and pedestrians. Some will also include similar technology for reversing, or if the vehicle begins moving forward in traffic.

 

  • Adaptive Cruise Control. Cruise control has been around for a while, but adaptive cruise control goes one better. It will automatically adjust and maintain your speed based on the speed of the vehicle in front.

 

  • Lane Assistance and Lane Departure Warning. Lane assistance and lane departure use cameras built into the car to track the lines of road. The vehicle makes automatic adjustments to stay within its lane. If the driver turns the wheel and crosses a lane, without engaging the indicator, an alarm will sound. Just bear in mind,  this technology requires good lane markings to work effectively.

 

  • Automatic High Beams. Again the car use sensors to detect tail lights or oncoming traffic and adjusts the brightness of its headlights accordingly. Where possible it will switch to full beams. It won’t help drowsiness, but it will help you spot a potential hazard.

Below are links to the safety pages of some leading car manufacturers:

 

Off the Shelf Safety Products.

If your car doesn’t have the latest safety features, there are off-the-shelf products that claim to recognize drowsiness. However, judging by some of the reviews, they can give false responses and probably shouldn’t be wholly relied upon. The two most popular devices on Amazon are the Resqme Alertme Lifesaver Alert and StopSleep.

Resqme Alertme Lifesaver Alert is a device that sits behind the ear, like a hearing aid, and sounds an alarm when it senses the driver’s head dropping forward, in the manner of someone falling asleep. The alarm is about 90 decibels or equivalent to a police whistle.

StopSleep is worn like a knuckle duster across the index and middle finger, rather than behind the ear. The explanation of how it works describes how it uses,

“cutaneous sensors which monitor your electrodermal activity. Your electrodermal activity represents your brain activity, and by measuring this activity, StopSleep drowsy driver alarm can accurately gauge your levels of awareness.”

The sensor has two levels of alerting the driver. It starts with a warning vibration but follows with a loud alarm, if it believes the driver is in danger.

 

You Can’t Beat a Good Night’s Sleep.

While researching this article, I read about several cell phone apps that claimed to recognized driver fatigue. However, many of these apps are no longer available on their respective app stores. I don’t know the reason, but it might indicate that devices and apps are not accurate enough to be used reliably.

Vehicle safety technology has come a long since the days of freezing yourself to stay awake. However, perhaps the best way to ensure not sleeping at the wheel is still to maintain a healthy lifestyle and sleep well.

You can’t compete with sleep. It’s a biological necessity, same as the need for food and water. Regardless of technology, your body will always win.

James

James Gleeson is a Super Commuter, commuting over 3 hours a day from his home in the Blue Mountains, Australia to the office in Sydney.

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