Let me start this off by saying this: Do not drive drowsy.
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Studies have shown that driving drowsy can be as bad as driving while intoxicated.
If you feel yourself getting drowsy, pull over somewhere safe or switch drivers if you’re driving with another adult. You cannot, I repeat, cannot stop yourself from falling asleep if you are tired enough. Your brain will literally switch into a different mode on its own. Your brain does not know you’re going 65 miles-per-hour, and thinks you are relaxing because you’re sitting down.
I have a lot of experience driving while sleep-deprived due to working nights and having sleeping disorders, and have had some close calls. I did a lot of research on this subject as well.
With all that in mind, these measures are good for prevention before you feel drowsy. Combine all of this advice for best results, and remember driving while well-rested is always safer than driving tired, so if you can avoid it, just don’t drive tired at all.
1. The 15-minute rule
Even if you’re tired, I’ve found that driving for 15 minutes is usually a safe amount of time to drive. This does not always apply to every situation, but in my experience it’s pretty consistent. After 15 minutes sitting in the driver’s seat, my body seems to think it’s resting and that right now would be a great time to fall asleep.
2. Take a 20 minute nap before driving
The power of the 15-20 minute nap is immense, hence the term “power-nap”. Many times I have gone from needing a full-night’s sleep, to having a 20-minute nap, to being alert for 6 hours or more. This makes driving much safer, and I’ve napped at a friend’s house (or at work) for 20 minutes or so many times before driving to make my drive home safe.
Note: If you sleep between 30 minutes and 90 minutes, you may have more trouble waking up due to the interruption of a REM cycle. If possible, try sleeping for 90 minutes. The first 90 minutes of sleep is one REM cycle, which means you will actually be getting restorative sleep if you can be asleep that long.
3. Have someone to talk to in the car
If you’re tired enough, no type (or volume) of music is going to do anything to keep you awake. I remember turning my music up as loud as possible and still pulling over to fall asleep. It’s just not enough to snap your brain out of going-to-sleep mode.
What can really help is having a conversation with someone in the car. Phone conversations are better than nothing, but having someone there in person to engage you and keep your brain active is much better. It’s also helpful to have someone to tell you when to pull over if you aren’t experienced with driving tired.
4. Avoid junk food, especially sugar
Junk food can make you tired by bombarding your body with garbage that it then has to deal with. Sugar, bad fat and salt combined tend to make me feel like taking a nap.
Sugar is especially bad. When I consume a lot of sugar quickly, sometimes I will become uncontrollably groggy. With this in mind, opt for black coffee or unsweetened tea if you need to consume a stimulant.
5. Eat something healthy
Eat something that is low-sugar and high protein, preferably before your drive.
That will give your body the energy you need to stay awake, and could also signal your body that you aren’t about to go to sleep, so it shouldn’t start the slow-down process that leads to sleep.
6. Cold temperature, wind, and noise can help, a little
Opening your window, turning the AC on full-blast, or turning your metal music up to the maximum can help you stay awake in some less-tired circumstances.
I haven’t had much luck with this strategy for more than 5 minutes, but sometimes 5 minutes is all you need. When you pull over to pass out, the police may check on the car blasting music with a passed-out passenger, but they will likely just tell you to park in a safer location than the side of the highway.
7. Pull over in a safe place, and walk around
This tells your body that it’s not bedtime. If you can interact with a person during your break (maybe while buying that black coffee), that’s even better. Stimulating the body and mind can keep you going.
Caffeine is weird. It stimulates your body, but its intensity varies wildly from person to person. I am so desensitized to caffeine at this point that a normal amount doesn’t seem to keep me awake at all. More than a normal amount, though, can still help me stay awake.
Try to stick to little or no sugar in your caffeinated beverages. Energy drinks are a bad idea. Black coffee and unsweetened tea are a good idea. A little sugar is okay.
Caffeine pills can be very useful if you just want an energy bump beyond the normal level you get from coffee alone. They can be bought over-the-counter at most stores that sell medicine (usually labeled something like “Stay Awake”, just check the ingredients to make sure it only contains caffeine and nothing else.
Be careful with these and try to determine how much you can handle before taking any.
For reference, a Tall (12 oz.) Starbucks Coffee (Pike Place Roast) has 235 milligrams of caffeine.
Don’t go crazy with it. I overdosed on caffeine nearly a decade ago during my first day of the job at a coffee shop by trying every drink I could. I ended up drinking over 1 gram of caffeine (1000 milligrams) with zero caffeine tolerance and felt like I was going to explode for hours afterward.
10. Don’t drive at a time when you would normally be asleep. Seriously.
I learned this the hard way when leaving after midnight on a 12-hour drive. Bottom-line is: The more signals your body gets that it should be asleep, the harder it will be to stay awake. This includes your sleeping schedule.
11. If you’re going on a cross-country drive, leave when the sun is coming up
Daylight signals you body that it’s not time to go to sleep, most of the time. I’ve done this as well and it is much much better than driving when it’s dark.