Drowsy Driving vs. Drunk Driving

Most people know that it’s dangerous to get behind the wheel after drinking, but what some people don’t realize that it is just as dangerous to drive while being tired. Studies show people that drive with even just minor sleep deprivation are twice as likely to crash as someone who gets the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep.

Drunk driving and drowsy driving have several similarities. They both result in impaired attention, judgment, mental processing, and slower reflexes. They are both equally dangerous and double the risk of an accident. Both types of crashes can injure or even kill yourself or someone else. They can also result in jail time for the driver, lawsuits, and large settlements being paid to families of the victims.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), crashes from drowsy driving are serious and the morbidity and mortality with these crashes are high due to higher speeds and delayed reaction times. Many of these crashes take place on high-speed roads such as highways. Almost half of drowsy driving accidents involve only one vehicle that drives off the road. Data also shows that drivers who are sleepy have slower reaction times and are less likely to take action to avoid a crash, and most crashes happen when the driver is alone in the vehicle.

The risk of drowsy driving is even higher in people with untreated sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and narcolepsy. Those taking medications that are sedatives or consume alcohol are at greater risk as well, along with shift-workers and those that work long hours or over-night shifts.

The risk of drowsy-related accidents is not only high in people with chronic sleepiness due to sleep disorders or work hours but is just as high in those with acute sleepiness. Losing out on sleep for even just one night puts you at risk. This can happen with a late night at work, social outing, getting ready for a vacation, staying up with a sick child, and the list continues on.

Because our internal biological clock tells us when to feel sleepy, most drowsy-related crashes happen late at night. Those that travel long distances or drive longer than three hours at a time with no break are also at greater risk.

There are symptoms of sleepiness to be aware of. People that are too sleepy to drive have trouble staying focused, keeping their eyes open, and heads up. Their minds may start to wander or have daydreams. They yawn frequently, may drift out of the lane, and miss signs or exits. They may feel irritable and restless. Some people while drowsy driving may forget how far they’ve driven or what they passed while on the road.

If any of these symptoms apply to you, don’t get behind the wheel. If possible, take a power nap. Even a 20-minute nap can be enough to make you feel more alert and awake. If you can, have someone drive for you or use public transportation. It also helps to have someone with you and not travel alone.

To stay alerted while driving, make sure you get plenty of sleep the night before. If traveling long distances, stop somewhere overnight instead of driving straight through. While you are driving take a break every couple hours and stop driving if you feel tired. It may also help to have a caffeinated beverage such as coffee.

If you suffer from a sleep disorder make sure it is being treated, and if you are supposed to wear a CPAP machine during sleep, make sure you wear it. If you are getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep at night and are still feeling sleepy during the day, talk with your doctor to see if you have a sleep disorder that needs to be treated.


Kristina Diaz, RRT  is a Registered Respiratory Therapist and a health and wellness enthusiast and writer.

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