Taking a road trip can be exciting, even if it’s a day trip to a relative's house or a trip for work. Getting out on the open road has its appeal — changing your environment and seeing new sites can re-energize and reinvigorate. But oftentimes, most of your trip will be spent on long, straight roads with no end in sight.
The mundane aspect of driving long distances can make drivers feel bored and groggy behind the wheel, which leads to complacent and dangerous driving. When we start to feel tired while driving, we tend to think we can push through just with sheer will instead of determining how we can actively give ourselves more energy. But, the consequences of drowsy driving can be significant — in 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes.
We know long trips in the car can be tough, so we wanted to give a list of tips to help combat drowsiness while driving. We have broken down our tips into three main categories: driving tips, diet tips, and sleeping tips. We also compiled a list of symptoms that mean you’re too tired to drive. You can view the full infographic here.
Why drowsy driving is so risky:
UCLA’s sleep center explained that while we can put off eating when hungry or drinking when thirsty, our body’s drive to sleep is so strong that eventually, it’ll force us to sleep, even if the conditions are less than ideal (like, say, we are behind the wheel). While you may be able to will yourself to not eat that cheesecake, you cannot will yourself to stay awake indefinitely. Even if you never fall asleep while driving, if you’re tired, your reaction times will be slower, as will your ability to assess and respond to dangerous situations. You may get away with driving sleepy once in a while, but you’re tempting fate.
Drivers who are most at risk:
From UCLA’s sleep center:
- Shift workers
- Business travelers
- Drivers who regularly don’t get enough sleep
- Drivers who’ve been awake for a long time
- Young male drivers
- Drivers who take medications that cause drowsiness
- Drivers with untreated sleep disorders
- Drivers who have been drinking alcohol
1. Drive at times that you are normally awake.
Try to avoid driving between midnight and 6 a.m., as your circadian rhythm will naturally drop during this time window. Your circadian rhythm is an internal clock that cycles between intervals of alertness and drowsiness. Most adults’ circadian rhythm also drops between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., explaining that grogginess you feel after lunch.
2. Don't rush when you drive.
Don’t rush when driving long distances: you may be anxious to get to your destination, which can lead to speeding and other dangerous driving habits. Research shows 70 percent of drivers who felt stressed lost focus at the wheel and put themselves and others in danger.
Take your time and relax. Relaxed-but-alert driving is safe driving.
3. Eat a healthy meal before you go.
Diet plays an important part in your ability to remain alert throughout your trip. Eat a healthy meal 30 minutes before you get behind the wheel. Focus on consuming lean protein like fish and whole grains such as quinoa, as these give you sustained energy.
4. Take energy-boosting vitamins.
Consider taking vitamins: B-12 helps turn glucose from your food into healthy energy. It also helps circulate oxygen throughout your body. Iron, ginseng root and ashwagandha are other supplements proven to boost energy levels and decrease stress.
5. Sustain with a 100-calorie snack.
If you’re feeling slightly drowsy mid-trip, avoid fast food and instead opt for a simple 100-calorie snack like sunflower seeds. Small snacks give you extra fuel, but those with lots of carbs or sugar slow you down by spiking your energy levels and leading to an eventual crash.
6. Drink caffeine.
Drink coffee or green tea in the early stages of your trip. Coffee and green tea are great ways to stay alert, but be wary: you may experience a dip in energy when the caffeine wears off.
7. Get a full night’s sleep before you go.
One of the most important parts of planning your trip is getting a good night’s sleep before your drive. Aim to get eight hours of restful sleep. This will help keep you alert for the duration of your trip.
8. Take a power nap.
If you’re leaving in the middle of the day, take a 20-minute power nap before your drive. Studies show a quick nap acts as a reboot for your brain.
Power naps are also useful mid-trip — if you’re feeling drowsy while driving, pull over to a rest area and take a quick nap. This could make all the difference in getting to your destination safely.
9. Get out and get the blood flowing.
Sitting for long periods of time can make you feel lethargic. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is get out and get the blood flowing by going for a quick walk around a rest stop. You can also try moving one limb at a time while driving to improve circulation.
10. Roll the window down and get some fresh air.
Try rolling down the windows and letting some fresh air into the car. The cold wind on your face has been proven to make you more alert by reducing a driver’s passive fatigue, or tiredness from having too little to concentrate on.
11. Crank up the jams.
Turn the volume up on your favorite upbeat music. It’s been proven that sounds above 90 decibels disrupt your drowsiness. Listening to your most loved songs can also spike your heart rate and fight off boredom, so turn up your playlist and sing along!
12. Travel with a friend.
If you can, embark on your journey with one or more friends. Having someone to chat with keeps you engaged and helps you from slipping into boredom and drowsiness. Bringing a friend along also gives you someone to split driving duties with when you’re feeling tired.
Five signs you’re too tired to drive
Safe driving advocates urge drivers to treat feeling drowsy while driving as a serious emergency and to pull over immediately. Five important signs you need to take action:
- Frequent yawning and rubbing your eyes
- Can’t remember the last few miles driven
- Having trouble holding your head up, or nodding off
- Driving past your turn or exit or missing traffic signs
- Drifting onto the rumble strips or in and out of your lane
What to do if you’re too tired
If you realize you’re definitely too tired to keep driving as you are, there are steps you can take to protect your safety and that of other drivers on the road:
- Pull over at a rest stop and get out to walk around
- Take a short nap someplace safe
- Ask a traveling companion to drive for a while
- Have coffee or other caffeinated products and don’t get back on the road for at least 30 minutes (when the anti-fatigue effects will kick in)
Road trips are a great way to satisfy your adventurous side, but driving long distances can be dangerous if you’re not prepared. Before you embark on your next trip make sure your car is road trip ready, your insurance is up-to-date and you follow our tips and tricks on staying awake while driving.