The Dangers of Driving Sleepy

We all know the dangers of texting and driving or drinking and driving. But did you know driving sleepy also increases your risk of being involved in an accident?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in every 25 adults has fallen asleep at the wheel in the last month. Obviously falling asleep at the wheel can be deadly. But even if you manage to stay awake, driving when you’re tired is dangerous.

When you’re sleepy, you tend to be less alert. You’re also more likely to make poor decisions, such as driving too fast or not leaving enough distance between you and the driver in front of you. Driving sleepy also may mean your reaction time is decreased. If you need to slam on the breaks suddenly, even a second delay can be the difference between avoiding an accident and crashing.

Dangers of Drowsy Driving

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), driving while sleepy was thought to be the cause of over 72,000 car accidents, which resulted in over 800 fatalities in 2013. But that number may even be higher. It can be difficult for crash investigators to know if the driver was too sleepy to drive. Accidents where drowsiness played a role are sometimes attributed to other factors.

Risks Factors for Driving Sleepy

Of course, anyone can be at risk for driving drowsy. But certain factors increase a person’s chances of becoming sleepy behind the wheel. For instance, if you work overnight, you might be tired when you drive home in the morning. Taking certain medications that cause drowsiness and having an untreated sleep disorder also increases your risk. People who drive long distances, such as truck drivers, are also at a higher risk of driving drowsy.

According to UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, young male drivers are at risk of driving when they are too tired. That may be because young men tend to make certain choices, such as pulling an all-nighter or having a few alcoholic drinks, that increases drowsiness. They may also be less likely to realize they are too tired to drive.

driving and daytime sleepiness
driving and daytime sleepiness

Recognize the Signs of Drowsy Driving

Even if you don’t have specific risk factors for driving drowsy, it can happen to anyone. Recognizing the signs that you’re too tired to drive can be lifesaving.  For example, if you are having trouble keeping your eyes open or catch yourself yawning frequently, it might be time to pull over.

Additional signs you might be too sleepy to keep driving include drifting into another lane and missing road signs. Also, if you suddenly find yourself several miles down the road and don’t remember driving it, it might be due to fatigue.

How to Prevent Drowsy Driving

There are several things you can do to prevent driving when you’re sleepy. Consider the following suggestions:

  • Develop good sleep habits: Your best bet to keep you alert when you’re driving, is get the rest you need at night. Make getting seven to nine of sleep each night a priority. If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk to your healthcare provider about improving your sleep habits.
  • Treat sleep disorders: Sleep disorders can lead to daytime sleepiness and increase your risk of driving drowsy. Treating sleep disorders will improve the quality of your sleep and your overall health.
  • Avoid late night driving: If possible, avoid long drives late at night when you might naturally be sleepy. For example, if you’re traveling on vacation, do most of your driving during the day when you’re more likely to be alert and wide awake.
  • Take a nap: If you find you’re getting too sleepy to drive, consider pulling off the road to a safe place and taking a quick nap. A short 20 to 30-minute nap, may increase your energy and wake you up.
  • Grab a cup of java: In some cases, a couple of cups of coffee may help give you a boost to feel more alert. Keep in mind, the effects of coffee are only short-term and should not substitute for getting enough sleep.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drowsy Driving; Asleep at the Wheel.   Retrieved January 2017

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drowsy Driving.   Retrieved January 2017

UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. Drowsy Driving.   Retrieved January 2017

Author: MaryAnn DePietro, CRT is a medical writer and licensed respiratory therapist with over a decade of clinical experience.

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