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How a Power Nap May Save Your Life

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It’s no secret that the importance of road safety is a pressing issue among drivers today. Each year, nearly 1.3 million people are killed in fatal motor vehicle accidents worldwide (1). In the U.S. alone, that number is over 33,000 (2). Sadly, many of the causes of these fatal accidents are completely avoidable. From distracted driving due to the use of cell phones to driving while intoxicated, the number of drivers that don’t believe the rules of the road apply to them is staggering and it’s this negligence that ultimately costs them and others their lives.

But what about accidents that don’t fall into any of these categories? Many fatal single-vehicle accidents remain unaccounted for, with substance abuse and intoxication ruled out of the equation. It begs the question of how a person, seemingly fit to drive, finds themselves in such a situation. For some, you may be surprised to find that it revolves around their sleep (or lack thereof).

Sleep Deprivation and its Harmful Effects

Much like being intoxicated, sleep deprivation affects the brain in a myriad of ways that can lead to impaired judgement and a reduced attention span while on the road (3). In fact, research has shown that driving while fatigued can be just as dangerous as driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.8—the legal limit in the U.S.. Despite this startling correlation, driving while sleep deprived is not illegal and cannot be enforced the same way driving under the influence can. Police officers can perform a breathalyzer test on drivers they suspect are over the legal alcohol limit, but determining the level of sleep deprivation and fatigue a driver is experiencing is nearly impossible, even if it can produce the same disastrous effects. Signs like drifting in and out of lanes, driving over or under the posted speed limit and missing traffic signs and lights can apply to both intoxicated and fatigued drivers (3), yet only one is currently considered a threat great enough to land you in jail, even if both are equally dangerous.

A Risk Higher Than Expected

The problem when driving fatigued and sleep deprived is understanding when that fatigue can pose a threat, not only to the drivers themselves, but to others as well—there is no standard or level to measure against, after all, and underestimating its effects is far too easy. For many drivers, the belief that they can somehow power through their exhaustion overrides common sense. Especially in the 21st century where external stimulation and stress is all around us, we’ve been conditioned to ignore fatigue and exhaustion and for many of us, the ability to recognize when we’re too tired has been greatly diminished. No one willingly gets into the driver’s seat thinking they’re tired enough to nod off while driving, yet, in a 2009 study of 12 states, 7.2% of adults aged 25 to 35 said yes when asked whether they had fallen asleep while driving in the past month. Pair that with the National Department of Transportation’s estimates that driving drowsy leads to 1,550 fatalities each year in the U.S. (4) and it’s clear to see the danger is real.

Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands

For the trend of motor vehicle accidents caused by insufficient sleep to change, it’s imperative that drivers asses their own capabilities the best they can while driving. Understanding when you’re too tired to drive and how it can affect vehicles on the road around you is what will ultimately save lives. In rural and commercial areas, pulling off the road and finding a place to park is easy, as there is no shortage of parking lots, gas stations and similar locations to stop and rest your eyes. Similarly, when driving on the freeway, there is typically a rest stop at most exits and drivers are advised to use them as they’re described: to rest. Most rest stops will have a large parking lot and access to restrooms as well as gas and food. Parking at a rest stop to nap is recommended when taking long road trips with some rest areas even offering lodging, should drivers find themselves too tired to drive through the night, a time when most of us are susceptible to nodding off.

How To Fight Fatigue On the Road

For drivers who have a blood alcohol level above the legal limit, it’s said that the only thing that will lower it is time. This is similar to being drowsy—the only way to fight fatigue is to actually sleep. When driving, however, especially long distances, it’s not easy to get a well deserved rest like it is at home. Especially if you’ve got a deadline or estimated time of arrival to keep, you’re often fighting the natural urge to sleep in order to stay on schedule. If you can’t get a full sleep, the next best thing is a good nap. When feeling drowsy, it’s recommended to pull over at a rest stop and take a power nap. A power nap isn’t something new, but its effects are only now being discovered in full. A power nap lasting less than 30 minutes has the ability to revitalize and refresh drivers for a period of time, much like a full night’s sleep would (5). Of course, it’s effects aren’t as long-lasting, but in a pinch, it’s incredibly beneficial and can help offset a poor night’s sleep and maintain alertness.

Caffeine Naps: Powerful and Effective

Possibly one of the best ways to ward off drowsiness on a long road trip is taking what many call a “stimulant nap”, “coffee nap” or "caffeine nap”. Research has shown that consuming a cup of coffee before taking a 15 to 20 minute power nap can have more significant effect and better suppress daytime drowsiness than the nap alone (6). Because caffeine in the bloodstream takes up to 30 minutes to produce its stimulating effects, by the time the nap is finished, you’ll not only be refreshed, but the added caffeine will have then begun to kick in and increase cognitive function and alertness. By combining the two, you’re ability to drive will have been restored, even if only to get you to a place where you can finally get a full night’s rest. Thankfully, most rest stops or gas stations sell coffee, making this method not only effective, but practical and readily available, too.

When getting behind the wheel, it’s important to remember the risk that being drowsy can pose. Though many will shrug off fatigue as a part of life, it’s ability to reduce alertness, response time and decision making can have serious repercussions. If you find yourself becoming fatigued and too tired to drive, especially on long trips, make use of the many rest stops and parking lots available in order to stop and nap. By taking even just a few minutes, you can not only increase your awareness on the road but also lower you risk of incident, keeping you and everyone else safe to travel.

Karim Zouiyen. [email protected]

(1) http://asirt.org/initiatives/informing-road-users/road-safety-facts/road-crash-statistics
(2) http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/accidental-injury.htm
(3) https://www.health.ny.gov/publications/3069/
(4) http://www.cdc.gov/features/dssleep/index.html#References
(5) https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/napping
(6) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9401427