How Does Sleep Deprivation Affect Drivers?

Cheryl Knight
Apr 27, 2022 · 5 min read
Driving after little to no sleep represents a danger to both you and other drivers on the road. Experts at the National Sleep Foundation liken getting behind the wheel while sleep deprived to driving drunk, and they say it’s even more dangerous in some cases.
The greatest risk comes from people who have slept less than four hours in the past 24 hours. Driver drowsiness plays a role in 16% of fatal crashes in the United States. If you can't stay awake while driving, you're a huge threat to your safety and the safety of everyone around you.
Read this guide by car insurance comparison shopping app Jerry to find out the warning signs of drowsy driving, current laws dealing with drivers who choose to drive while drowsy, and how to prevent this dangerous practice.
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Driving tired: Common symptoms and what to do

In addition to not getting the sleep you need, other factors can cause drowsy driving, including medication, sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, and working long hours. Some of the warning signs that indicate you might be suffering from drowsy driving include:
  • Frequent blinking or yawning
  • Nodding off and missing your exit
  • Problems drifting into the other lane
  • Problems driving over the rumble strip on the side of the road
  • Problems with remembering the last few miles you have driven
If you find yourself suffering from the above symptoms, you need to pull over immediately, either onto the shoulder or at a gas station or other stop.
Once pulled over, get out to walk around and try to wake up. If pulled over on the side of the road, watch out for oncoming traffic. If you can pull over to a rest stop or a parking lot to get some sleep, do so.
If you work inconsistent or unusual hours, pay particular attention to how much sleep you are getting when you commute to and from your job. Shift workers who work overnight or on long rotations are less likely to get the amount of sleep they need.

Current drowsy driving laws

In addition to being dangerous, drowsy driving is actually illegal in Arkansas and New Jersey. Arkansas defines "fatigued driving" as an offense punishable by a class A misdemeanor as "negligent homicide" if the driver has been in a fatal accident due to 24 hours without sleep.
In New Jersey, you are treated the same way as an intoxicated driver if you have been without sleep for 24 hours and can be considered "driving recklessly."
Most states, however, do not have laws on the books to penalize drivers for driving when sleep deprived. A few states have set up initiatives to promote healthy driving practices and discourage drowsy driving, including California, Florida, Texas, and Utah.

How to prevent drowsy driving

While getting plenty of sleep is obviously the best way to combat drowsy driving, other ways to stay awake while driving include:
  • Napping: Taking a short nap before you leave on a long trip can help if you did not get enough sleep the night before. In addition, you can pull over while driving and take a short 15-to-20-minute nap. Just remember to park in a safe area when doing so and wake up fully before hitting the road again.
  • Buddy system: When taking a long trip, find a buddy to go with you, especially if you do not plan on stopping to rest. This way you and your friend can swap out driving every two hours while the other driver gets some rest.
  • Take your time: When taking a long road trip, take your time. This leisurely pace should allow you to get the rest you need along the way and helps ensure that you arrive at your destination safely.
  • Avoid alcohol: Don't drink alcohol while driving or before setting out on your trip. Alcohol only makes the drowsiness associated with sleep-deprived driving worse. Even if you're above the legal limit, alcohol could make you sleepy and impact your reaction times.
  • Avoid driving late at night: Try to drive during the daytime or early evening hours. Driving late at night, when your body normally sleeps, can make it harder to stay awake.
  • Drink plenty of caffeine: Drinking caffeine can help you stay alert while driving on a long trip. While caffeine does improve alertness, keep in mind its effects usually wear off after only a few hours.
Avoiding drowsy driving altogether by getting plenty of sleep is the best way to avoid falling asleep while on the road. And while you can control yourself in this regard, you have no control over the sleep habits of other drivers on the road.
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FAQs

How many car accidents are caused by sleep deprivation?

Nearly 100,000 car accidents each year are caused by sleep deprivation, and sleep deprivation while driving is responsible for nearly 16% of fatal crashes in the U.S.

Is driving tired the same as driving drunk?

Driving tired and driving drunk are both dangerous behaviors and the pose similar risks on the road. Drivers who drive tired may fall asleep at the wheel or not notice incoming dangers. Drunk drivers may not notice oncoming dangers either, and their driving will be more reckless and uncoordinated.
Only New Jersey will fine you for driving tired and driving drunk in the same way.
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