Getting in that last-minute travel with the family this Labor Day holiday weekend may be a high priority on your list, but trying to cram in too many miles in too short a time could well be a recipe for disaster.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleepiness slows driver reaction time, impairs vision, and causes lapses in judgment and delays in processing information. Research studies show that being awake for more than 20 hours results in impairment equal to blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent, which is the legal limit in all states. In addition, 20+ hours awake means it’s possible for the driver to fall into a three to four-second microsleep – without even realizing it.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that driver fatigue causes 100,000 crashes each year, resulting in an estimated 1,550 deaths. A survey last November by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 96 percent of Americans say drowsy driving is unacceptable behavior, but one-third admit they do it anyway.
Along with other safe driving tips like making sure everyone in the vehicle is buckled up, watching your speed and being a defensive driver, here are 10 tips to help keep you awake at the wheel this Labor Day weekend
(1) Get a good night’s sleep first. Preparation for a Labor Day weekend driving trip should include getting a full night’s rest the night prior to heading out on the road. That may be tough to do, with last-minute work deadlines, packing and other family responsibilities, but if you’re going to be driving with the family in tow, it’s your responsibility to keep them safe by making sure you’ve had enough sleep. How much sleep do you need? Experts recommend 7 to 9 hours.
(2) Don’t drive when you’d normally be asleep. Whether you’re trying to avoid traffic congestion by driving at night or you’ve got a long road ahead and want to drive straight through, avoid driving at times when you’d normally be asleep. Also see these tips for safe driving at night, if you absolutely must drive during the night hours.
(3) Don’t consume a heavy meal before setting out. Not only will you run the risk of indigestion by eating a heavy meal and then beginning your long drive, but you may also have a tendency to nod off. Keep mealtime light before driving to help stay awake and alert.
(4) Take your time. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to get to your destination as fast as possible. After all, this may be the last family road trip until Thanksgiving or Christmas and you want to maximize your time away. But don’t do it at the expense of safety. Driving non-stop and through the night is never recommended.
Highway rest stop - AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
(5) Stop for breaks often. Keeping alert and awake means that you need to pull over to a safe location, get out of the vehicle and take a break. Stopping to refuel is one time to do this logically, as well as making quick stops to grab a snack, take a walk, check out a destination en route, even to go shopping. Use a quick break to change drivers as well. The recommended time between breaks is every two hours or 100 miles.
(6) Keep your co-pilot by your side. It’s often called the buddy system, and for good reason. When you travel long distances by car, don’t drive alone. Having someone next to you in the vehicle (preferably a driver) can help keep you awake and alert by talking with you, monitoring for any signs of fatigue, and switching off driving with you when necessary.
(7) Avoid taking medications and alcohol. Many medications list drowsiness as a side-effect and come with the caution to not use them before driving. Combine medications and alcohol and the effect increases. If you regularly take medications that cause drowsiness, forego taking them until you arrive at your destination – or have someone else drive. And never consume alcohol before getting behind the wheel.
(8) Caffeine helps – for a while. While drinking coffee won’t keep you awake if your body is ready to shut down, having a couple of cups of caffeine will provide temporary alertness for several hours. That could be sufficient to allow you to get to your intended destination safely.
(9) Take a nap if you’re tired. When you start to exhibit signs of sleepiness such as repeated yawning, trouble keeping your head up, missing turns, traffic signs and exits, difficulty focusing, repeated blinking, inability to clearly remember the last few miles driven, swerving, tailgating and/or hitting rumble strips, it’s time to pull off the road. Find a safe place and take a 15-20 minute nap. Just be sure you’re careful about excessive drowsiness when you wake up. Here’s where those two cups of coffee might help you regain alertness.
(10) Break up the trip to include an extra overnight or two. If you’re driving solo, or don’t have a switch-off driver, and have a long distance to travel, it may be advisable to add an extra overnight both ways to ensure you’re not driving when you’re too sleepy to do so safely.