AutoMatters & More: Staying alert — and awake — while driving

Monotonous driving on a deserted open road
Monotonous driving on a deserted open road

Many of us have not driven very much during COVID-19. In the U.S. that situation is changing, now that a large and growing percentage of our population is fully vaccinated (myself included). This has particular relevance as we are approaching the time when many of us take summer vacations by car.

Since purchasing my new “daily driver” in August, 2020, I’ve barely put 2,000 miles on it. That extended lack of driving hurt my confidence behind the wheel. Fortunately, I’ve been doing more driving lately and that feeling of insecurity has begun to go away.

Driving at night can exacerbate fatigue
Driving at night can exacerbate fatigue

Short trips are one thing, but driving long distances is something else. Spending long periods of time behind the wheel on lightly travelled, relatively straight and featureless roads, and at a constant speed, is monotonous — especially at night and when driving alone. That can induce fatigue.

Driving while drowsy is impaired driving, much like driving while intoxicated is, and may be even worse, depending upon the degree of fatigue. Fatigue makes it difficult to stay alert. In a worst-case scenario, that can lead to falling asleep behind the wheel, with disastrous results.

Right turn on a dark two-lane road

A 2020 article by BMW reported that: “According to a study published in the British journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers in Australia and New Zealand found that drowsy driving has some of the same effects as drunk driving. They found that people who drive after being awake for 17 to 19 hours performed worse than those with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent, which is the legal limit for drunk driving in most western European countries.”

Warning signs of getting tired are yawning over and over again, or having trouble keeping your eyes open. An absolute danger sign, that requires immediate corrective action, is if we catch ourselves dozing off for a few seconds — which the BMW article tells us may be due to a condition known as “microsleep.” They warned that “a five-second failure to stay awake while driving at 55 mph (approx. 90 km/h) would mean you’ve traveled around 135 yards (120 meters) down the road when you were asleep, which is more than enough time to cause a crash.” Have you ever experienced microsleep while driving?

Driving toward distant traffic lanes

The safest solution is simply to not drive when tired. Do not exhaust yourself before attempting to drive long distances. Ideally, begin each drive after a good night’s sleep — not after a full day at an amusement park or after a hard day’s work.

Failing that, there are strategies to help drivers stay alert behind the wheel. If you are driving and beginning to feel drowsy, find somewhere safe, pull off the road and get some needed sleep. A short nap can often make a big difference.

You can also reinvigorate yourself by pulling off of the road and taking a walk or doing some activity: fill up with gas or recharge your EV, take some travel photos, or perhaps do a little shopping for souvenirs. However, stopping to eat a large meal is NOT advised. Eat lightly and keep hydrated.

Left turn on a dark two-lane road

I remember what my dad used to do when we were driving to British Columbia from Calgary for our annual summer vacation. From time to time, he’d pull over somewhere and go to sleep in the car. I particularly remember him snoring. Inevitably we stopped at some rest stop where there was nothing to do besides watch dad sleep. As a kid eager to get to our destination, I hated dad’s snooze breaks.

Chatting with a passenger can keep the driver mentally engaged and alert. It is pretty hard to conduct a coherent conversation while dozing off. Your passenger would hopefully notice and urgently tell you to stop driving.

Additionally, modern cars increasingly have driver assistance features that may help you drive and also warn you about inattention.

What are some things that do not work? Things that I’ve tried with no lasting success are opening the windows during cold weather, turning up the volume on the audio system and even talking aloud to myself.

For more information, I recommend the BMW article that I referenced earlier. Entitled “How to stay awake while driving — what really helps,” it is about the dangers of driving while drowsy and what you can do about it. Read it at:

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Copyright © 2021 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters & More #694