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How to Avoid Drowsy Driving on a Road Trip

drowsy driving

Hitting the road can be a nice way to travel. You can leave when you like, choose your route, stop when you want to and avoid airplane food and airport security. Just make sure you get a good night’s sleep before you go.

Drowsy Driving Risks

Research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that 6% to 11% of reported motor-vehicle crashes and 16% to 21% of fatal crashes likely involve drowsy driving. Fatigue impairs your driving skills, affecting your judgement and reaction time, just like being drunk, drugged or distracted.

And while the majority of Americans know it’s risky to drive drowsy, most do it anyway. In a recent survey by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 60% of adult drivers and 85% of teen drivers admitted to getting behind the wheel while sleepy.

Missing even a couple of hours of sleep can increase your risk of a crash. So, what’s a road tripper to do?

Sleep to Prepare

The tactics that we usually employ to stay awake (think: turning up the volume on the radio, drinking coffee or putting the windows down for fresh air) are merely short-term solutions that will eventually fade. The only way to effectively rid yourself of drowsiness is to get a good night’s rest before any road trip, long or short.

Time it Right

Late morning, late afternoon and early evening are when we’re most alert, according to the NSF, with drowsy-driving accidents most likely to happen during early morning and late-night hours. Time your drive for your most wakeful hours, and make sure to take a break every two hours or 100 miles.

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Buddy Up

Travel with an alert passenger and take turns driving.

Mind Your Meds

Pain relievers, antihistamines and other medications can make you drowsy and impair your ability to drive. Pay attention to those warnings on the label and time your dosage accordingly.


Sleep expert Michael Breus suggests this trick for getting the most out of a rest stop nap: First, avoid eating any heavy foods. Next, quickly consume your caffeinated beverage of choice. When you finish your last sip, set your alarm and take a 20-minute nap. The caffeine will hit your system in 20-25 minutes.

Seek Out Nap-Friendly Stops

It’s recommended to schedule a break from driving every two hours or 100 miles, but multiday trips require much longer stretches of rest. Try to choose a hotel with rooms away from the street. Bring your own pillows, white-noise options and keep the blackout curtains completely closed.

Know when to pull over. If you find yourself repeatedly yawning, unable to keep your eyes open, driving too close to the car in front of you or drifting into other lanes, it’s time to pull off the road and get some rest. You just might save yourself from being one of the 6,400 people who die each year in drowsy driving accidents.

Have you ever caught yourself getting sleepy behind the wheel? What are your tricks for staying awake and alert on long drives? Share with us in the comments.

(Illustration: Gary Hovland)


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6 Thoughts on “How to Avoid Drowsy Driving on a Road Trip

  1. If you have long hair put the ends in your window. If your head drops when you are sleepy it will pull your hair and wake you up

  2. An artist who made long trips on the arts-festival circuit gave a good tip to a younger artist, which I listened in on. He said that if you’re sleepy, pull over, cross your arms over the steering wheel, and rest your head on your arms. You’ll get a good nap, but since you can’t stay in that position for more than 20 minutes or so, you won’t stay asleep too long!

  3. Long ago, a Mexican long-haul truck driver told me that the one sure thing that kept him awake was having a lemon ball (a kind of sour hard candy) in his mouth made it impossible to fall asleep. I tried this myself in my wayward youth and it worked. But it’s an unpleasant emergency measure that you won’t want to employ except in an emergency. And it might not work for everyone all the time.

  4. Usually a 20 minute nap does it for me on long trips.
    Also with good Bluetooth long drives alone are a good time to catch up on phone calls.

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