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Ways to Prevent a Fatigue Related Crash While Driving

Tired young woman - Ways to prevent fatigue - Copyright: David Pereiras Villagr√°

What is Fatigue?

Fatigue is physical or mental tiredness caused by monotony, illness, or lack of sleep. Just like alcohol and drugs, this tiredness impairs your vision and judgment. It causes you to take longer to make decisions, which increases the risk of an accident. You could also fall asleep behind the wheel and crash, injuring or killing yourself or others.

Who is Most at Risk?

Research has identified five groups of drivers that are more at risk for collisions due to sleepiness:

  • Shift workers and people working long hours
  • Business travelers
  • Commercial drivers
  • People with sleep disorders
  • Young people between 16 and 24 years

Working the night shift increases your risk of fatigue behind the wheel by nearly 6 times. You also need to be particularly careful if you work more than 60 hours a week.

People who spend many hours driving, like long-haul drivers or business travelers, are also at risk. Business travelers may be suffering from jet lag and crossing time zones, or just getting too little sleep when traveling.

Drivers with untreated sleep apnea have up to a seven times increased risk of falling asleep at the wheel.

Young drivers, especially men under age 26, also have an increased risk of being involved in a crash due to drowsy driving.

If you are getting your first learner’s permit, you should remember that half of all drowsy driving crashes are caused by young drivers.

drowsy driving road sign by Ken Lund

What Causes Fatigue behind the Wheel?

Driving long distances without proper rest breaks is asking for trouble. You should schedule proper breaks every 100 miles or 2 hours during long trips. Stop, get out of the car, get some fresh air, and move around. Coffee will also help you stay alert.

Driving at night or when you would normally be asleep can also cause fatigue. Try to drive at daytime. Make sure you are well-rested before you start driving.

Most people need 7 to 9 hours sleep to be alert during the day. If you sleep less than 6 hours before the day of a trip, you triple your risk of a crash. Get a good night’s sleep before you drive.

Bad weather or poor rood conditions can put you under more strain than usual, adding fatigue on top of the dangerous driving conditions. Low visibility also adds to your strain and can result in fatigue. This is particularly true for less experienced drivers.

Monotony on the road is also dangerous. The sound of the wind, the tires, and the steady hum of the engine can create a state where your thoughts start wandering and you become aware of what is happening around you. This drowsy state is commonly referred to as “Highway Hypnosis”.

If you have wandering, disconnected thoughts and can’t remember driving the last few miles, it is time to take a break.

Alcohol is a common cause of falling asleep behind the wheel. Contrary to popular belief, alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant. A depressant slows you down and. It affects coordination and your reaction time, and it adds quickly to your fatigue when driving longer distances.

Some drugs also have a negative effect on your ability to stay alert behind the wheel. We all know that allergy medicines and cold medicines can make you drowsy. If you must drive with a cold, it may be safer to suffer from the cold than drive under the effects of an unknown medicine.

Eye on the road - Fatigue by

Warning Signs of Drowsy Driving

Be aware of the following warning signs:

  • Your eyes go out of focus
  • You close your eyes for a brief second
  • You have trouble keeping your head up
  • You yawn repeatedly
  • You find yourself thinking of something else than driving
  • You don’t remember the last few miles
  • You drift out of your lane or onto the shoulder
  • You miss an exit or don’t remember seeing road signs

Don’t try to fight the drowsiness. Pull over and rest. Most people think they can control their sleep and stay awake if they must. Most of them are wrong.

If you are drowsy or sleep-deprived, you can fall asleep behind the wheel and never even know it.

Breaks – the Best Way to Fight Fatigue

On long trips, stop to rest every two hours or every 100 miles. This is one of the most common tips in driver’s manuals across the country. It also shows up as a common answer on DMV Tests.

Breaks are the only real cure when you start to feel tired. Remember, if you show any signs of sleepiness, stop sooner and take a short nap. A short nap is more effective than coffee. It can save your life and the lives of others.

Man taking a nap - Copyright:  Monika Wisniewska

If possible, drive with a companion. A passenger can help look for early warning signs of fatigue and you can share the driving task by switching when needed.

Plan Ahead before You Drive

Plan before you embark on a long trip. Sleep at least 8 hours the night before. Drive when the sun is up and avoid driving late at night. Most people are less alert at night, especially after midnight. Your body wants to sleep between 12 am and 6 am.

If you have been drinking alcohol, make sure you wait several hours before driving or let someone else drive. If you take any kind of drugs, make sure you read the labels or discuss driving with a pharmacist or doctor.

Ways to Stay Alert while You Drive

A common mistake by new drivers is to constantly stare at the road in front of the vehicle. You should shift your eyes from one part of the road to another. Look at objects near and far, left and right, in front of the vehicle and behind it. This helps you to stay alert and focused on your driving.

Keep it cool. Turn down the AC or roll down a window to get fresh air while you drive. Coffee will also help you stay alert. Some also like to play music or listen to talk shows.

Keep track of the time. When you’ve been driving for two hours, it is time for a break. Stop, even if you don’t feel tired.

Summary to Remember for Your DMV Test

Fact sheet about Fatigue - Copyright:

Check What You Have Learned

Question: If you begin to feel sleepy while driving on a long trip, you should do which of the following?

A. Keep your eyes still and focused on the road ahead
B. Increase your speed
C. Both A and B
D. Neither A nor B

Photo credits:

Tired woman on a long trip – Copyright: David Pereiras Villagr√°
Man taking a nap – Copyright: Monika Wisniewska
Fact sheet – Copyright:
Drowsy driving sign – CC Ken Lund

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