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Are You Feeling Sleepy?

Anybody else feeling a bit tired at this time of year? What with all the build-up to Christmas, the Big Day itself, the weirdness of the in-between days at the end of December and the fun of staying up all night to see in the new year, it would be unsurprising if you weren’t a bit tired. This is especially the case if you’re one of the many who has to keep working during this time of year (because cars still need fuel, fruit needs to be harvested, cows need to be milked and people need to eat). Add in the fact that this is when quite a lot of people like to drive longer distances to visit relatives or to go somewhere on holiday, and you get a much higher risk of people driving fatigued.

Fatigue is more than just ordinary tiredness. According to the dictionary, fatigue is a state of complete mental and physical exhaustion, of being completely and utterly worn out or, as C.S. Lewis would put it “dog-tired, cab-horse tired, tired like a child in a factory”. You could refer to it as being overtired.

Why Fatigue Matters

Fatigue matters because it affects your driving. It makes you less alert and less aware of your surroundings, and it slows your reaction time. It also affects your thinking powers so that you make crappy decisions. In short, driving fatigued is at least as bad as driving drunk. In fact, the two are pretty similar. Both slow your reaction times and affect your ability to make decisions. However, people who drive drunk are likely to make impulsive, reckless decisions, whereas those who drive when exhausted are likely to be less alert, less aware of hazards and slow to make a judgement call. In fact, driving after having been awake for 20 hours is the equivalent to driving at the legal alcohol limit.

Fatigue also carries the risk of nodding off at the wheel. You can see why. It’s dark outside (signalling to your body that it’s night time and therefore bedtime), the white lines on the road flick by monotonously (which has a hypnotic effect), the car seat is beautifully padded and supportive, and the interior of the car is warm… Before you know it, you can feel your eyelids drooping and your head nodding. Not good. Even if you nod off for a second, that can be one second too many if your car swerves.

Unfortunately, although you can estimate breath or blood alcohol levels, you can’t measure fatigue. You can’t even pin it down purely to the number of hours you’ve slept for the way you can pin down the amount of alcohol you’ve had using the number of standard drinks. Although lack of sleep is one component of fatigue, it’s not the only factor. Someone who had had one bad night of sleep can be less fatigued when driving than someone who’s had a week or more of wakefulness and insomnia, even though the first person has had fewer hours of sleep last night. A lot of things influence your level of fatigue other than how much sleep you’ve had – there’s how stressed or emotionally drained you’re feeling, any mental fatigue you’re going through (hard day at work, anyone?), what exercise you’ve done and what you’ve been eating.

One contributor to fatigue, both mental and physical, is doing the same thing for hours and keeping alert and focused on one thing for hours. This is exactly what happens when you’re driving, especially if you have to focus intently the entire time (e.g., in very busy traffic). This makes long-haul driving especially risky.

Then there’s the little matter of your body clock. It’s natural for the hormones in your body to fluctuate during the day, although this can be influenced by what you’ve been eating and/or drinking (looking at you, caffeine). This means that you can be feeling fine in the morning even though you’ve only had five hours of sleep the night before, then feel sleeeeeeepyyyyy come midday. In fact, it’s natural for people to feel a bit lethargic in the middle of the day after lunch, and it’s not just because of the heat. Your body clock can be messed with by a number of things, including shift work, the changeover to and from daylight savings, having a new baby in the house… and even the very common habit of staying up late and sleeping in on weekends.

How Can You Avoid Driving While Fatigued?

The main cause of fatigue is poor sleep, so the obvious answer to how you can avoid driving while fatigued is to ensure that you get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis. The odd broken night, late night or very early morning probably won’t hurt you or your driving, but if it happens too often, you could be putting yourself and your passengers in danger.

This is primarily a driving blog rather than a health blog, so I can’t go into too much detail about how to get a good night’s sleep, but here are some ideas:

  • Have a regular bedtime routine, which helps your body wind down and get ready to sleep.
  • Wake up at the same time every day (yes, even on weekends!).
  • Avoid blue light (e.g., screens without a filter) last thing at night.
  • Keep your bedroom dark and minimize the number of devices you keep in there.
  • Watch your caffeine intake. A good rule of thumb is to have your last cup of coffee at 4 pm, and switch to other drinks after that.
  • Avoid thinking about, reading about or watching anything likely to make you stress, angst or worry – including the fact that you can’t sleep if you’re having trouble dropping off.

Other ways that you can help avoid fatigue when you’re driving are the following:

  • Know yourself. If you’re a night owl, avoid driving in the early morning when you’re not fully awake. If you’re an early bird, then avoid driving later at night.
  • Be aware of your natural ebb and flow of sleep-related hormones. If you know that you’re tired, it may be best to avoid driving during the early afternoon slump. This is a good excuse to get out and go for a stroll (which will ease some of the mental fatigue and give you a good oxygen burst) or to take a siesta.
  • Having extra coffee – although this only works in the short-term and will wear off and leave you even more fatigued, so use this one with caution.
  • Opening the window for fresh air and switching on some pumping music. Again, these are only short-term fixes to wake the brain up by increasing oxygen intake and getting some natural stimulation (in the form of music). However, these also wear off fairly quickly.
  • Share the driving. If you know that you have to put in a long-haul drive, then arrange for the passenger to take a sleep first as you go (eye masks and a nice pillow help here), then swap.
  • PULL OVER AND TAKE A NAP. It won’t kill you if you pull over somewhere safe, turn off the engine put the seat back and have a short nap (about 10 minutes or so). However, falling asleep at the wheel may kill you. If you’ve got kids in the car, then wait until they’re asleep before you do this if you’re alone. If there’s another adult in the car, then the other adult can keep an eye on the kids while they whizz around in a playground and you sleep. But get that nap. It’s better to arrive 10 minutes late than to not arrive at all.