Risks of Drowsy Driving and Stimulants
Written by Elizabeth Rivelli
Oct. 28, 2021 / 8 min read
Edited By Maggie Kempken
Driving while drowsy is a very common occurrence. According to the National Sleep Foundation, roughly 50% of adult drivers say they consistently drive while feeling tired, and roughly 20% of drivers said they had fallen asleep while driving within the last 12 months.
Unfortunately, many drivers get behind the wheel when they are feeling tired, even for long road trips. Driving while drowsy can be incredibly dangerous, and the effects can be similar to driving while intoxicated. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) finds that an estimated 100,000 accidents are caused by driver fatigue every year.
The solution for many sleepy drivers is to have an extra cup of coffee or an energy drink to help them stay awake. However, the risks of driving drowsy can actually increase when drivers rely on stimulants to drive when they are tired.
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Common stimulants and the risks
Studies show that about 85% of Americans drink at least one caffeinated beverage per day. Caffeine and other stimulants may temporarily give you energy, but they can be detrimental to your health in the long run. Consuming large amounts of stimulants can lead to heart problems, anxiety, dehydration, high blood pressure, insomnia and more.
Additionally, ingesting too much caffeine can cause caffeine intoxication, which can mirror the effects of alcohol intoxication, including irritability, twitching muscles and slurred speech.
When you consume caffeinated beverages or stimulants, there is no guarantee you will have enough energy to drive. Plus, it can cause micro sleeping while you are driving, which is a short period of inattention. Within those few seconds, drivers have limited awareness of their surroundings and are more likely to drive off the road or get into an accident. When caffeine wears off, you might also be even more sleepy than you were before you ingested it.
Here are some of the most common stimulants used to combat drowsy driving, and why they might not be as effective as you imagine:
Coffee and tea: Many people start their day with a cup of coffee, which can help you get a boost of energy. However, drinking a large amount of coffee to make up for lost sleep becomes problematic and can disrupt your sleep patterns. You can also develop a tolerance to caffeine’s stimulant effects. Contrary to popular belief, drinking caffeinated tea is not a healthier alternative when used as an energy supplement.
Energy drinks: Energy drinks like Redbull, 5-hour Energy, Bang Energy and Monster can make you feel alert very quickly, but they are typically unhealthy. These drinks contain huge amounts of caffeine and other chemicals that can lead to adverse side effects, not to mention a huge crash when the caffeine starts to wear off.
Caffeine pills: Avoid using caffeine pills, like green coffee pills, to fake a good night’s sleep before you get behind the wheel. These pills are known to cause serious side effects like dizziness, shaking and nausea, making drowsy driving even more unsafe.
Overuse of Rx medicine: If you have a prescription for stimulant medication, like Adderall, it should not be overused or abused. Avoid using prescription stimulants to boost energy, and do not seek out these medications illegally if you do not have a prescription from a medical doctor. Prescription stimulants can have the opposite effect if you don’t need them, and overusing certain stimulants can lead to dependency.
The risks of drowsy driving
Driving drowsy is always dangerous, no matter how far you are traveling. In fact, researchers have found that driving drowsy is similar in many ways to driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. When you are tired, your response time slows down, you are less attentive, and it becomes more difficult to focus. Here are some alarming statistics around drowsy driving:
Going 18 hours without sleep is similar to having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .05% (CDC)
Drowsy driving crashes often only involve a single passenger running off the road (NHTSA)
Drowsy driving contributes to an estimated 9.5% of all crashes (AAA)
What is considered drowsy driving?
Unlike driving intoxicated, you cannot measure how tired someone is. There is no breathalyzer test equivalent to determine how tired or alert a driver is when they get behind the wheel.
Because of that, anyone who drives while they are extremely tired is at risk of drowsy driving. If you feel exhausted and are second-guessing whether or not you should be driving, you are probably too tired to get behind the wheel.
Signs of drowsy driving
Surprisingly, many drivers do not recognize all the signs of drowsy driving. While yawning constantly is a telltale sign of tiredness, there are some other signs of drowsy driving that you should be aware of, including:
Struggling to stay in your lane
Legal risks of driving drowsy
Driving drowsy and falling asleep behind the wheel is not technically illegal or punishable. However, if you get pulled over for driving unsafely, and the officer determines that you are sleep-deprived, you will likely get a ticket and a fine.
If you cause an accident due to being drowsy, you can also face consequences. Typically, driving drowsy falls under the category of reckless driving, leading to penalties like hefty fines, license suspension and even potential jail time.
Also, do not assume that your car insurance company will cover an accident you cause while driving tired. Although some of the damages may be covered, it can depend on the severity of the crash. For example, if you fall asleep at the wheel and hit and kill a pedestrian, your insurance may not cover part or all of the damages, and you could get sued for wrongful death.
Driving during the day vs. at night
If you are at risk for drowsy driving, try to avoid driving at night if you can. There are more cars on the road during the daytime, and the light makes it easier to see obstacles around you. Your body’s natural circadian rhythm causes you to be more alert during the day and more tired at night as you get ready to sleep.
Listen to your body
Ultimately, when it comes to being tired, only you know your body’s limits. Before you get behind the wheel, it is important to listen to your body and determine if you are alert enough to drive safely. If you do not feel completely safe, or if you do not feel comfortable getting behind the wheel, you should avoid driving altogether.
The same goes for while you are driving. If you find yourself starting to get tired on a long road trip, ask yourself whether you can realistically stay awake and keep driving safely or if you should pull over and rest. When it comes to driving drowsy, it is never worth risking your safety or the safety of other drivers if you are feeling too tired to drive. Stopping and resting is probably the safest course of action.
Drive with passengers when possible
Another way to lower the risk of driving drowsy is to drive with another person. Having a second driver allows you to switch off and get rest when needed. Just make sure that you are driving with passengers who will not provide further distractions, especially if you are driving at night.
Healthier alternatives to stimulants
Rather than relying on stimulants to stay awake, you should simply avoid driving while you are extremely tired, or at least postpone your trip until you are more rested. However, if you have no choice but to drive while you are feeling tired, consider these healthier alternatives instead:
Take a power nap: Before you get in the car, take a short power nap. Data shows that sleeping for just 15 to 20 minutes can help recharge your body and make you feel more alert.
Open a window: Rolling down the window while driving can help you stay awake and feel more refreshed. Plus, driving with the windows down can be noisy, which can make you feel more awake.
Turn up the radio: Turning up the radio or listening to an interesting podcast may help you stay awake when you feel tired. Your favorite music can help you stay engaged and focused, compared to driving in silence.
Pull over: If you feel increasingly tired during your drive, think about pulling over to take a quick nap at a rest stop or grab something to eat. You might also find that taking a short walk can give you a boost of energy.
Use essential oils: Certain essential oils have been shown to promote energy, such as peppermint and orange. If you are planning a road trip, consider taking a few essential oils with you in case you start to feel sleepy.
Meditate: Before you start driving, do a guided meditation designed to energize you. Meditation can also help improve your focus before you get in the car.
Avoid alcohol: If you plan to drive for a while, avoid alcohol before you get in the car. Research shows that one or two drinks can make you feel sleepy, even if you feel able to drive safely otherwise.
Who’s most at risk for drowsy driving?
Every driver is at risk for drowsy driving. While not getting enough sleep has long-term negative health consequences, sometimes getting a good night’s sleep is easier said than done. Some people have irregular daily schedules that can make sleep more difficult. Here are some groups that might be at a higher risk of drowsy driving:
Young people: Teen and college-aged drivers who have a rigorous school schedule could be more likely to drive while drowsy. This is also exacerbated by long hours spent studying, participating in after-school activities and taking early morning classes.
Parents: Parents who have infants and young children are often subject to driving while they are tired. As a parent, driving while drowsy can be especially dangerous if they are shuttling their kids around to school and other activities in addition to their own commuting.
Long haul drivers: People who drive for a living, like truck and delivery drivers, are also affected by drowsy driving. If you spend long hours on the road, your risk for an accident caused by drowsy driving can increase significantly.
Shift workers: Shift workers, like doctors, nurses, first responders and restaurant employees, could be more likely to suffer from drowsy driving, particularly if they are working late at night or early in the morning.
People with undiagnosed/untreated sleep disorders: People with undiagnosed sleeping disorders, like insomnia, often deal with poor sleep schedules that can cause safety issues when driving. This also goes for people who have sleeping disorders but do not take their medication as directed.
Apps to prevent drowsy driving
Many new cars come equipped with technology that can help you drive more safely while you are tired, such as lane keep assist and automatic braking if a collision is imminent. If your car does not have these features, another option is to use mobile apps that are free and readily accessible. Here are some apps we suggest to prevent drowsy driving:
Apps to help keep you alert and focused
Awake: The Awake app alerts drivers when they start to show signs of drowsy driving. The app sounds an alarm on their phone or their Apple Watch (for iOS users) to help them wake up.
MindAlert: The MindAlert app helps drivers stay alert when they are tired using sounds to remind them to refocus on the road or take a break.
NapDetect: The NapDetect app uses the front-facing camera on your phone as well as AI and facial recognition to determine when you might be getting sleepy behind the wheel.
Apps to help regulate sleep cycle
Sleep Time: The Sleep Time app is a sleep timer that analyzes your sleep patterns, helps you wake up slowly and allows you to customize a soothing alarm for stress-free mornings.
Sleep Easy: Sleep Easy is designed for people with insomnia, but it can also be used to regulate sleep cycles. You can access various programs to repair your sleep cycle, improve sleep overall, reduce stress and more.
Sleep Cycle: The Sleep Cycle app allows you to analyze your sleep patterns and detect sleep-related issues, like snoring and sleep talking. The app also has a built-in alarm clock that gently wakes you up during your lightest sleep phase.
Elizabeth has two years of experience writing for insurance domains such as Bankrate.com, The Simple Dollar, Coverage.com and NextAdvisor, among others. In addition to auto insurance, Elizabeth regularly writes about home insurance, renters insurance and life insurance. She also covers industry trends and general insurance education.