Published on March 08, 2022

Sleep Deprivation and Driving Don’t Mix

tired woman

Losing an hour of sleep may not seem like much, but it can have a big impact.

A slight time shift can cause many individuals to experience sleep deprivation and increased sleepiness for several days. Significant negative effects include fatigue, poor productivity, mood problems and motor vehicle accidents.

Sleep loss can greatly impair an individual’s ability to drive. Some people can experience micro-sleeps which are short, involuntary periods of inattention. When driving at 60 mph, if you experience a four to five second micro-sleep, your vehicle can travel the length of a football field without you being aware or in control of your vehicle. This drowsy driving can be as deadly as drunk driving by putting yourself, your passengers and other drivers in danger.

Drowsy driving is impaired driving and is often difficult for individual drivers to identify.

Very similar to alcohol, drowsiness can reduce alertness and attentiveness, delay reaction times and hinder decision-making skills. After approximately 18 hours of being awake, your reaction time, vigilance and hand-eye coordination are comparable to having a blood alcohol content of 0.05%. Twenty hours of being awake is an equivalent of a blood alcohol content of 0.08% - the U.S. legal limit, and being awake for 24 hours is comparable to a 0.1% blood alcohol content.

Drowsy driving accounts for about 100,000 vehicle crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities per year.

Most at risk for drowsy driving are:

• young and inexperienced drivers who are more likely to drive late hours for work or social reasons
• shift workers or those with extended work hours
• commercial drivers
• business travelers who are often subjected to jet lag and changing time zones
• individuals taking sedating medications
• people with sleep conditions (narcolepsy, insomnia, untreated OSA or other sleep disorders)

Most drowsy driving accidents occur when the body is generally at rest (early morning, mid-afternoon, late at night).
If you are driving and experience the following warning signs of drowsy driving, please pull over to a safe location until you are better rested.

Warning Signs:

• yawning
• restlessness
• being unable to keep your eyes focused or open and are constantly blinking
• nodding off, or if your head suddenly feels unbearably heavy
• being unable to recall the past few miles driven
• drifting from your lane
• hitting a rumble strip
• missing road signs or your exit

When you know your sleep schedule is going to be disrupted, such as for Daylight Savings Time’s Spring Forward, travel or a specific event, there are things you can do to minimize the negative effects.

The week before the time change or event, make these gradual adjustments:

• Go to bed 15-20 minutes earlier each night
• Adjust the timing of daily routines that are cues to sleep (dim lights, shower/bathe, turn electronics off, etc)
• Set the clocks ahead one hour on Friday afternoon or early on Saturday
• Get early morning sunlight or bright light exposure on Sunday

If you have difficulty staying awake while driving, despite adequate sleep, ask your health care provider if you should be evaluated for a sleep disorder.

Drowsy driving is impaired driving and is often difficult for individual drivers to identify.