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The Dangers of Drowsy Driving in the UK

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There's some seriously sleepy--and dangerous--driving going on in the UK. A new study conducted by Brake and Cambridge Weight Plan indicates that millions of people on the road are nodding off behind the wheel.

The study surveyed 1,000 drivers, and its results show that many UK drivers are ignoring signs of drowsiness while driving, putting themselves and others at risk for sleep-related accidents. Among the study's most alarming results are:

  • 1 in 8 drivers (that's 4 million people!) have "nodded off" at the wheel, for a period of 2-30 seconds.
  • 1 in 4 respondents said they will actually begin a drive while already feeling tired
  • More than three-quarters--86 percent--of drivers will not stop to rest if they begin to feel sleepy behind the wheel.
  • Nearly a third--29 percent--of drivers decide to keep driving despite feeling drowsy.
  • 13 percent of participants reported suffering from a sleep-related health problem, such as insomnia or sleep apnea, putting them at even particular risk for drowsiness while driving.

So, who is most at risk for dangerously tired driving? Young people and men seem to be particularly prone to this kind of behavior. Researchers found that more than half of drivers ages 18-24 are likely to start a drive while already feeling tired. Men are twice as likely as women to nod off while driving, and twice as likely to choose to drive while feeling drowsy. 

People often don't take drowsy driving seriously enough. The fact is, it can be as dangerous as driving drunk. Drowsy drivers share many of the same impairments as drunk drivers, including:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Impaired judgment
  • Increased moodiness ( aka "Road Rage")

Sleepy driving is probably more commonplace than drunk driving, and it's unfortunately a great deal more acceptable. That's a dangerous combination. Estimates in the UK blame 1 in 5 fatal automobile accidents on drowsy driving; in the US, a recent study found that 1 in 6 fatal crashes were likely caused by drowsy drivers. Sleep-related accidents can be particularly dangerous because a dozing driver often has almost no time to react by braking or otherwise avoiding a collision.

Beware the temptation to think you can power your way through a long drive with the help of caffeine or energy drinks. These beverages--especially those caffeine and sugar-laden energy drinks--provide at most a quick fix, and have their own side effects that can pose problems for your driving, your sleep, and your health. In addition to often containing excessive amounts of caffeine, the ever-popular energy drinks also are loaded with sugar. Sure, you'll get a short-term boost from a bottle of this stuff, but the sugar-crash that follows can make you feel even more tired, as well as jittery and anxious. A good, old-fashioned cup of coffee or tea can perk you up, but too much caffeine, especially later in the day, can interfere with your nighttime sleep, setting you up to feel drowsy the next day. You don't have to avoid these beverages altogether: a small cup of coffee or tea early in the day, ideally before 2 p.m., can give you the pick-me-up you're looking for without incurring the negative consequences of too much caffeine and sugar.

Rather than relying on stimulants, follow these strategies to help keep you awake--and safe--on the road:

  1. Rest up. The simplest way to avoid the dangers of tired driving is to not allow yourself to fall behind in your sleep to begin with. If you know you'll be spending an extended period of time behind the wheel, plan ahead for some extra sleep. When planning your schedule for long drives, be sure to include time for rest breaks along the way.
  2. Take breaks. Driving for hours on end is fatiguing, and the monotony can make you feel even more tired. Don't drive for more than a couple of hours without a 15-minute break. Take a few minutes to stretch, walk a bit, and get some fresh air.
  3. Don't fight your drowsiness. If you feel the signs of sleepiness coming on, stop driving. Find a safe, comfortable place to rest until you're able to continue your trip safely.
  4.  Don't ignore chronic tiredness. It's dangerous to ignore signs of sleepiness while driving, but frequent daytime tiredness should never be ignored, no matter what the circumstances. If you're regularly sleepy during the day, talk to your doctor.
  5. Try my nap-a-latte™ for a quick afternoon nap.  Choose a safe, well-lit place for a nap. Drink a cold 6 oz. cup of drip coffee.  Close your eyes for 25 minutes and nap - set an alarm on your phone.  When you wake, you will have reduced your sleep drive and the caffeine will kick in. You will be good for at least two hours.

For safety's sake, it's time to start taking drowsy driving seriously, and to be honest about our own individual limitations while on the road.  At the end of the day, there is no substitute for a good night's sleep.  If you're having trouble sleeping, see your doctor.  If think you just don't have time to sleep, think again.

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