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Feeling Sleepy?

It can be as dangerous as driving drunk and probably contributes just as much to accidents, including the fatal ones, just as much. But you won’t find the boys and girls in blue standing on the side of the road asking you to breath into this little meter so they can find out whether you’re under the influence of this thing. You can’t regulate sales of this or perform any tests at the side of the road. Even clever Swedish cars like Saab and Volvo can’t be fitted with a gadget that prevents you from driving when you fail the test (both these marques have optional accessories that prevent you from driving drunk).

It’s about sleep. We all need it and an awful lot of us don’t get enough of it in the modern world. And if you don’t get enough of it, you can end up nodding off at the wheel. As anyone who’s had a cranky baby could tell you, the sound of a car engine is rather soothing and can easily lull you off to sleep. It’s particularly bad on country roads in Australia that involve long straight stretches where there’s nothing to see except the road markings whizzing past you at a constant and predictable pattern. It’s quite hypnotic late at night. It happened to my brother-in-law when he was working on a farm out the back of Adelaide. He was driving back from town late at night, perfectly sober, and fell asleep at the wheel. He lived to tell the tale, luckily for him, but others aren’t so lucky and end up going off the road into a ditch or a tree or, worse still, another car.

According to the NSW transport department, there are three main things we need to keep in mind to avoid driving tired. The first is your body clock. Humans are diurnal creatures rather than nocturnal animals, which means that we are designed to be awake when the sun is up and asleep when the sun is down. Our hormones are sensitive to natural light and when it gets dark, the signal goes out to tell you that it’s time to go bye-byes. Driving at night means that you’re more likely to feel sleepy and fall asleep at the wheel – and the risk absolutely soars in the small hours (i.e. between 12 midnight and about 5:30 in the morning). We also tend to have an energy slump at midday, so this can be another time when you can get sleepy.

Number two to consider is the state of your sleep account. Most adults need 7–9 hours of sleep every 24 hours, with 8 being a good average to aim for. If you don’t get enough, you go into a sleep debt. Now, a small sleep debt can be paid back quickly by skipping a few TV programmes and going to bed early but a long-term one can cause major problems, with a tendency to fall asleep at the wheel being only one of them, although it is the one that is most likely to be fatal.

Number three is down to the individual. There are Night Owls and Early Birds. Early Birds usually just bounce out of bed ready to go (and have a tendency to fall asleep earlier in the evening). Night Owls hate alarm clock and even though they’re up on their feet, they don’t get fully underway until being awake for half an hour. Night Owls should be careful not to get up so late that they have to drive while they’re still in zombie mode. On a long journey that’s going to take all day, it’s wise to share the driving between a Night Owl and an Early Bird, with the Early Bird doing the driving during the first part of the day while the Owl sits groggily in the passenger seat, and the Night Owl taking over in the latter half of the day. If you’re alone, plan long drives accordingly: if you’re an Early Bird, start your trip earlier in the day; if you’re a Night Owl, start at the normal time and keep going for a bit longer.

What can you do if you’re miles from home and you know you’re tired for whatever reason? The following can help and might literally save your life:


  • • Coffee. It should only be a short-term solution, as a serious coffee habit can lead to a bigger sleep debt. But as a one-off, it can literally be a lifesaver. So can other caffeine-laden products such as Coke, Pepsi and those energy drinks.
  • • Fresh air. Wind down the windows to avoid the womb-like effect of a warm, enclosed space.
  • • Sit up straighter. When slumped back in a comfy leather seat that cushions you in all the right places, it’s easy to nod off. Put the seat upright.
  • • Music. Choose something with a strong, bouncy beat that isn’t too hypnotic in its effects.
  • • Avoid eating carbohydrates, as these make you feel sleepy. Go for something light. Apples are supposed to be quite good at waking you up, and they certainly won’t hurt.
  • • Pull over and sleep. Instead of fighting and fighting that haze that buzzes around your head, just find a nice place to park, lock the doors and put that seat back as far as it can go (or hop into the back seat). About 5 minutes should be enough to refresh you enough to keep going and get home.

And if you’re reading this late at night while surfing the net and you’ve got some driving to do tomorrow (who hasn’t?), stop now and go to bed. Yes, you. Now. Sweet dreams…


  1. Patrick Furlong says:

    Good advice, but anyone who has constant concentration and drowsiness problems should also talk to their doctor and ask about Sleep Apnea. It is a serious sleeping disorder, and is a much more common problem than people realise but it’s not discussed much, especially on subjects like this. It can also have a serious effect on people at work, especially those who operate machinery..

    February 26th, 2013 at 10:37 am