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Your Health

5 signs you might fall asleep at the wheel

Jan 23 2017
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Nearly 95 percent of American drivers believe it is unacceptable for someone to drive when they’re sleepy or are having trouble keeping their eyes open, according to a recent survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

In the same survey, however, nearly three in 10 licensed drivers reported having driven when they were so tired they had a hard time keeping their eyes open.

It’s been a long day and you’re driving home. You’re exhausted. Pretty soon your eyelids are heavy and you start to nod off. Suddenly the sound of a rumble strip jolts you awake. Luckily you recover and get back on the road. You were lucky this time, but you — and other innocent people — could have been another statistic on drowsy driving because you were asleep at the wheel.

More than one-in-five fatal crashes in the United States involve driver fatigue, according to a recent survey from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Most people take drowsy driving too lightly, according to Edmund Pezalla, M.D., M.P.H., senior medical director at Aetna. “Whether you’re on the highway or near your home, driving is still driving and many people just aren’t getting enough sleep to stay awake.”

Pezalla said there are a number of factors that contribute to driver fatigue, including driving late in the day, too much driving without sufficient rest breaks and not getting enough sleep the night before.

Medications are another significant contributor to drowsy driving.  “People tend to forget that there are a lot of medications and prescriptions that can make you sleepy,” Pezalla notes. “Whether you take a certain kind of medicine regularly, or are using something to address a particular issue like a cold, take a minute to look at the potential side effects. If you aren’t sure how a new medicine will affect you, try it out when you are not getting behind the wheel.”

Good advice: When your pill bottle advises against operating “heavy equipment,” assume it refers to most motorized-equipment, from lawn-mowers to cars and vans, to boats, planes and trains. 

In particular, Pezalla suggests more people should pay attention to antihistamines, including Benadryl and its generic form diphenhydramine. “High doses of Benadryl are actually the active ingredient in over-the-counter sleep medications,” Pezalla said. “Most people would not consider driving after taking a sleeping pill. But they might swallow a dose of Benadryl and head off on their morning commute.”

It’s not always easy to tell when you’re too tired to drive. Here are five signs from the National Sleep Foundation that it might be time to pull over:

  1. Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, or heavy eyelids
  2. Trouble remembering the last few miles driven; missing exits or traffic signs
  3. Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes
  4. Trouble keeping your head up
  5. Drifting from your lane, tailgating, or hitting a shoulder rumble strip

When faced with fatigue, Pezalla urges drivers to pull over in a safe place if they ever experience symptoms of drowsy driving. To stay alert and be safe behind the wheel, he recommends getting plenty of sleep, drive at times you’re normally awake, schedule a break in driving every 100 miles or so and travel with an alert passenger to take turns driving.

Your family doctor or primary care physician can offer guidance and direction if you have any concerns about the medications you may be taking. Remember to read any drug facts and warning labels to know the true affect your medications may have on you.

To learn more about the connection between sleep and health check out these posts:  Running on empty: Americans don’t get enough sleep and Could you or your child have sleep apnea?