According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34 to 36 percent of adults in Rhode Island regularly get less than seven hours of sleep. Those sleep stats put them at higher risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, but it also puts drowsy drivers on the road where they’re more likely to get into accidents. However, drowsy driving can be prevented by improving your sleep habits and acting responsibly if you find yourself drowsy while behind the wheel.
What Happens to the Brain Without Sleep?
The brain doesn’t shut down while you’re asleep. It gets busy doing a different kind of work. While you sleep, the brain cleanses itself of neurotoxins that accumulate during the day. The body’s glymphatic system goes into high gear to clear out proteins and amino acids that, if left in the brain, slow down communication between cells. The brain cells actually shrink so more fluid can flow through and clear the way for daytime signals.
However, the effects of sleep deprivation go deeper than a simple cleaning. The brain’s cells were only designed to function at peak efficiency for a certain amount of time. Once you’ve gone past that time, a chemical called adenosine builds up and triggers drowsiness. That drowsiness slows activity throughout the brain, affecting critical thinking, decision making, and response times.
To add it all up, lack of sleep causes clogged roads and slowed traffic in your brain. Oddly enough, the same thing can happen when you get behind a wheel only the results can be far more deadly. Unfortunately, the less sleep you get, the more pronounced the effects of sleep deprivation become.
A 2001 study showed that after 21 hours without sleep, participants’ driving abilities were comparable to those of someone with a .08 percent blood alcohol level. The sleep-deprived brain simply cannot stay vigilant or send, receive, and respond to signals in a timely manner. Biologically, the brain wasn’t designed to do highly responsive tasks like driving without adequate rest.
Create a Driving Plan and Commit to Better Sleep
You’re at a higher risk of drowsy driving if you get less than seven hours of sleep. However, long work hours and extreme fatigue can cause drowsiness too. So what do you do?
Long before you’re struggling to keep your eyes open, create a plan. Don’t rely on your willpower to fight off sleepiness. Your best option is to pull over and take a quick 10 to 15-minute nap, which is enough to curb your sleepiness for a while. If that’s not an option, roll down the window, chew gum, or turn up the radio. Any kind of stimulation can help keep your brain alert.
But if you’re really going to nip drowsy driving in the bud, you’ve got to commit to better sleep. Here a few ways you can improve your chances of getting a full seven to nine hours of sleep.
- Create a Sleep Supportive Environment: A comfortable mattress designed to complement your sleep style and weight can work wonders for reducing wakefulness and morning aches and pains.
- Don’t Delay Bedtime: Set a bedtime, and shut down your evening early or at least on time. You might be tempted to watch another episode of your favorite show or check your email one more time, but the effects of the resulting sleep loss can stalk you the next day.
- Embrace a Routine: Your brain needs time to transition from an alert state to sleep. Create a calming bedtime routine that relaxes your body and brings your heart rate down.
- Eat for Sleep Success: Eat nutritious, regularly spaced meals. Your brain uses repeating patterns of behavior, like your eating schedule, to correctly time the start of the sleep cycle.
The dangers of drowsy driving can’t be ignored. When you commit to better sleep, you’re committing to the increased safety for yourself, your family, and everyone else on the road. Pull over, take a nap, or make sure you get enough sleep in the first place.