Stay Alert: The Dangers of Drowsy Driving


A headshot of Lauren Van Luling, RN

Lauren Van Luling, BSN, RN

A man yawns while behind the wheel of his car as he experiences drowsy driving

Each year, drowsy driving leads to tens of thousands of motor vehicle accidents across the United States.

Unfortunately, those accidents result in hundreds of deaths.

In today’s fast-paced world, many individuals feel they need to sacrifice sleep in order to get ahead and will try to fight through the fatigue that comes along with sleeping for just a few hours each night.

Others may have untreated sleep disorders or use medication that leads to drowsiness but elect to “fight through it” instead of being safe.

The results can be deadly.

Drowsy driving poses a serious safety risk to the health and safety of the drowsy driver, his or her passengers, and other drivers and passengers on the road.

Why is drowsy driving dangerous?

Many people don’t think of drowsy driving as a serious safety threat, incorrectly assuming that as long as they can stay awake until the drive is done, things will be fine.

However, the dangers of drowsy driving go beyond falling asleep at the wheel.

Being overly tired can negatively impact your reaction time, level of cognition, and judgment – three crucial aspects of safe driving.

In fact, drowsiness and lack of sleep can have the same impact on the body as driving while intoxicated.

Studies have shown that being awake for 18 consecutive hours impacts the body in the same way as having a blood alcohol content of 0.05%.

How common is drowsy driving in the United States?

In 2017, research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that drowsy driving was responsible for 91,000 motor vehicle accidents, 50,000 injuries, and nearly 800 deaths.

The NHTSA noted that most of the accidents involved a single driver and occurred between midnight and 6 AM.

Additionally, the NHTSA believes that the figures above are low-end estimates, as incidents involving drowsy driving are often underreported.

What are the warning signs of drowsy driving?

While we all know what it’s like to feel tired, there are certain warning signs that you may be feeling drowsy to the point of it impacting your driving.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, those signs include:

  • Yawning or blinking frequently
  • Inability to remember the last few miles driven
  • Missing turns, exits, or road signs
  • Drifting into adjacent lanes or on to the shoulder/rumble strips

If you experience any of these warning signs, it’s important to do what you can to get off the road safely.

Simply rolling down the window or turning on the radio aren’t enough, and caffeine-based energy boosters often require 20-30 minutes to take effect.

Instead, once you find a safe place to pull over, considering taking a brief nap (15-20 minutes) or switching drivers, if you’re traveling with a partner.

How to prevent drowsy driving

The best way to avoid the aforementioned warning signs is to take proactive steps to keep yourself from feeling drowsy.

Developing good sleep habits is key to getting enough sleep and preventing drowsiness. It’s especially important to ensure that you get a good night’s sleep prior to a long car trip.

Other prevention tips include:

  • Plan for and take regular breaks
  • Travel with an awake passenger
  • Travel when you’d normally be awake, stop at night
  • Avoid alcohol and any medications that may cause drowsiness

Additionally, if you have a sleep disorder or have been experiencing symptoms of a sleep disorder, talk to a medical professional about treatment options to help you drive safely.

Lauren Van Luling, BSN, RN is the Trauma Program Resource Nurse at South Shore Hospital.

Learn more about Emergency & Trauma at South Shore Health.