How to stay awake while driving – what really helps

4 min reading time
Long distance driving makes you tired, so falling asleep is a real danger. But how do you prevent that? Coffee? Loud music? Or a break and a cat nap? Read on for the best tips on how to stay awake while driving.

We’ve all felt drowsy on the road before, but many people underestimate just how dangerous tiredness at the wheel really is.According to a study published in the British journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers in Australia and New Zealand found that drowsy driving has some of the same effects as drunk driving. They found that people who drive after being awake for 17 to 19 hours performed worse than those with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent, which is the legal limit for drunk driving in most western European countries, though it is a little higher in most U.S. states at 0.1 percent or 0.08 percent.

Fatigued drivers may be plagued by so-called microsleep, where a driver nods off for a few seconds.This is highly dangerous, as a five-second failure to stay awake while driving at 55 mph (approx. 90 km/h) would mean you’ve traveled around 135 yards (120 meter) down the road when you were asleep, which is more than enough time to cause a crash.

Safe driving tips: spot the warning signs of tiredness

There are often warning signs of impending microsleep, like frequent yawning and blinking, heavy eyelids and irritated eyes. When these symptoms occur, it’s time to do something about it.

Want to know the best way to stay awake and how to prevent an unintended nap? Look no further – read our tips below.

The best way to stay awake: power naps, breaks and passengers

  • Get enough sleep: The only true remedy for fatigue and drowsiness is sleep. Above all, the key thing for long distance driving is to be well rested. So don’t embark on a long journey after major stress and with a bad night’s sleep behind you.
  • Power naps: On longer trips you should take a cat nap at least every four hours. The benefits of napping are clear, but these power naps should be no longer than 20 minutes (as recommended by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), as otherwise your body may head into deep sleep.
  • Avoid your natural low points: Adjust your driving times or your journey to avoid your body’s biological low points, dictated by your circadian rhythm. These are generally between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. and about 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. While you may miss the traffic by planning a long car ride in the middle of the night, it’s definitely not a good way to prevent the dangers of drowsy driving.
  • Take regular breaks: One of the most important long distance driving tips is to make sure you take regular breaks. Park up, relax, and leave your vehicle. A short walk in the fresh air not only gives you a chance to stretch your limbs, but also boosts the supply of oxygen into your bloodstream, increasing your ability to concentrate.
  • Food: The right food also affects your condition. Don’t drive hungry or with a full stomach – both will inhibit your performance. Eat light snacks for driving such as vegetables, which provide an energy boost while at the same time being a healthy choice. Don’t consume heavy food during your journey, as this will only induce drowsiness.
  • Fluids: You should always drink enough fluids, something that doesn’t just apply to long distance driving. Drink as much water (or unsweetened juices) as possible.
  • The right amount of distraction: It can be helpful to have other things to do on a long car ride, just not so much that they keep you from concentrating on the road. An exciting audiobook can keep you mentally fresh during a monotonous activity like driving long distances. Even better is a conversation partner, one who entertains you and notices when you’re getting tired. In an ideal scenario, he then takes over at the wheel and gets you both to your destination safe and sound.
  • Medication and medical conditions: Be careful when driving after taking certain medication. Side effects may include drowsiness and diminished attention, which could result in drowsy driving or even microsleep. Sleeping pills, psychoactive drugs, analgesics and even allergy medicines can have this effect. If you’re unsure about a medicine’s effects, you should contact your doctor or pharmacist. The same applies if you suffer from medical conditions like chronic fatigue or a sleep disorder.

Drowsy driving: short-term fixes

  • Candy will give you a quick boost of energy. But your blood sugar level will then drop just as quickly and the tiredness will return, so it is just a short-term fix and not the best way to maintain your safety when driving long distances.
  • It’s a similar story with energy drinks and coffee: After the initial lift from caffeine and other similar substances, the fatigue soon comes back.
  • Airing out: Briefly opening the windows will give you an extra burst of oxygen (and perhaps a shock to the system that will provide a short blast of alertness). This trick, too, wears off quickly and therefore also goes in the “short-term fixes” folder.
  • Chewing gum stimulates the circulation of blood in the brain and reduces the symptoms of sleep deprivation – but only temporarily. It’s no cure for drowsy driving over prolonged periods.
  • Even loud music only helps briefly. What’s more, when you’re tired, you’re already less receptive to what’s going on around you, something not improved by a music system on full blast. This, in turn, is bad for traffic safety.

How your car can help you stay awake while driving

Driver assistance systems can also help you with drowsy driving. Typical symptoms of fatigue include careless driving and leaving your lane. There are various driver assistance systems to help prevent these things from happening. The Steering and Lane Control Assistant and side collision protection sound an alarm if you perform unnatural steering wheel movements or are in danger of being hit from the side. If this happens because you’re struggling with tiredness at the wheel, you should definitely take a break.

Digital assistants such as the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant also work to help you combat tiredness. Simply say “Hey BMW, I’m tired!” and your vehicle will launch the reinvigoration program, which is designed to combat fatigue via temperature adjustment, lighting effects and music. In fact, after a few hours of uninterrupted driving, a BMW tells you to take a break. If you need a bed, the navigation system, supported by the BMW Concierge Service, will guide you to the nearest hotel.

The golden rule, and one that always applies, is safety first. If you’ve followed these safe driving tips to help you prevent drowsy driving but you’re still tired, you need to stop! Break up your journey and continue only after a good night’s rest. The best way to tackle a lack of sleep is always with sleep.

Illustrations: Vanessa Deussen

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