Wheels & Heels: Take A Caffeine Nap To Avoid Falling Asleep At The Wheel

Do you expect a long drive next week for Thanksgiving? Here's a way to avoid falling asleep at the wheel.


If you’ll be driving hundreds of miles next week to enjoy Thanksgiving with family, then you'll want to know about a caffeine nap.

Because falling asleep at the wheel can be just as deadly as driving drunk.

One in six deadly crashes, and one in every eight crashes that caused a serious injury were linked to a drowsy driver, according to a 2010 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

But that caffeine nap can help keep you awake and alert, according to researchers at the Sleep Research Laboratory at Loughborough University in England, who have devoted decades to studying how to keep sleepy drivers from dozing off at the wheel.  

It’s not surprising that they found that consuming 200 mg. of caffeine helps drivers. Slug down the caffeine and then take a nap, and apparently you’ll wake up more alert than if you’d just swallowed coffee or pulled over and grabbed a little shut-eye in a rest area, the researchers found.

The caffeine nap seems to combine the effects of sleep and caffeine. You get some rest in the half hour before the caffeine takes effect.

Not just any caffeine will do, apparently. The Brits tested a well-known energy drink with 42 grams of sugar and 30 mg of caffeine and found that this high-sugar, low-caffeine drink did not prevent sleepiness among people in simulated driving tests. In fact, this beverage actually led to slower reaction times and more attention lapses about 80 minutes after the “driver” had swallowed the stuff.

Think an arctic blast from the air conditioner or AC/DC on the radio will keep you awake?

Think again.

The sleep researchers found these measures had no significant effects. Cold air and listening to the radio “are at best only temporary expedients to reduce driver sleepiness, perhaps enabling drivers to find a suitable place to stop, take a break and avail themselves of caffeine and a nap,” suggested researchers Jim A. Horne and Louise Reyner in a summary of their research.

But driving with an awake passenger will help.

When it comes to driving while sleepy, some drivers are clueless, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Although almost all drivers in the foundation’s 2011 safety culture survey said they thought it was unacceptable to drive while sleepy, almost a third of them admitted they’d driven “when they were so tired that they had difficulty keeping their eyes open in the past month.”

“Although the vast majority of drivers recognize the serious threat of drowsy driving, a ‘Do as I Say, Not as I Do’ attitude exists when getting behind the wheel,” said AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger in a foundation press release.

“Drowsy driving kills, just as sure as drunk, drugged and distracted driving does,” said Kennedy in the release. “Drivers have a tendency to underestimate the impact being tired has on their driving ability, which puts themselves and others at risk.”

According to the foundation’s 2010 study, “Asleep at the Wheel.”

  • An estimated one in six (16.5%) of fatal crashes, one in eight (13.1%) of crashes resulting in hospitalization, and one in 14 (7%) of all crashes in which a passenger vehicle is towed involved a drowsy driver.
  • Vehicles in which the driver was accompanied by a passenger were nearly 50 percent less likely to be involved in a drowsy-driving-related crash.
  • About 57 percent of drowsy driving crashes involved the driver drifting into other lanes or off the road.
  • Two out of three drivers involved in a drowsy driving crash were men.
  • Younger drivers ages 16‐24 were nearly twice as likely to be involved in a drowsy driving crash as drivers ages 40‐59.

Awake yet? There’s more. Two out of every five drivers (41 percent) admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel at some point, according to the foundation, with one in 10 saying they had done so in the past year.

“What’s so alarming is that over half of these drivers reported having fallen asleep while driving on high‐speed roads,” said AAA’s Director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research Jake Nelson in a press release. “These data underscore the importance of educating drivers about the dangers of drowsy driving.”

AAA has several recommendations for avoiding drowsy driving (see below), including drinking coffee or another caffeinated beverage.

"Since it takes about 30 minutes for caffeine to enter the bloodstream, find a safe place to take a 20‐30 minute nap while you’re waiting for the caffeine to take effect," AAA recommends.

So next Thursday, after stuffing yourself with turkey, resist the urge to climb behind the wheel. Compared to drowsy driving, a nap in front of a football game is a downright death defying act.

What are your favorite ways to pass the time on a long car trip?

AAA says warning signs of sleepiness include, but are not limited to:

  • Having difficulty keeping your eyes open and focused, and/or having heavy eyelids
  • Difficulty keeping your head up
  • Drifting from your lane, swerving, tailgating, and/or hitting rumble strips
  • Inability to clearly remember the last few miles driven
  • Missing traffic signs or driving past your intended exit
  • Yawning repeatedly and rubbing your eyes
  • Feeling irritable or restless

To remain alert and prevent a fall‐asleep crash, AAA offers these tips:

  • Get plenty of sleep (at least seven hours) the night before a long trip.
  • Stop driving if you become sleepy; someone who is tired could fall asleep at any time. Fatigue impacts reaction time, judgment and vision, causing people who are very sleepy to behave in similar ways to those who are drunk.
  • Travel at times when you are normally awake, and stay overnight rather than driving straight through.
  • Schedule a break every two hours or every 100 miles.
  • Travel with an awake passenger.

What are your favorite ways to pass the time on a long car trip?

Cynthia L. Armistead November 19, 2011 at 06:49 PM
At one time I was making weekly 150-mile round trips to south Georgia, so I read my AAA member newsletter as gospel truth. Something I learned in it was that one sign of dehydration is drowsiness, so one way to avoid drowsiness is to stay well-hydrated and drink water instead of caffeinated drinks. I switched to water instead of soda while driving, and found myself far more alert. All those "nature breaks" as my father calls them were good for stretching my legs for more alertness anyway ;-)


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