Be Sleepy, Not Drowsy: Drowsy Drivers Are a Danger on the Road

For many Americans, summer means hitting the road for a good-old family road trip, so it’s the prime time for long highway drives. In fact, according to a recent DMEa survey of 2,000 vehicle owners, 53% of U.S. drivers reported that they are taking a road trip this summer, and that they plan to drive at least 7 hours each day—with 1 in 10 reporting they plan to drive more than 12 hours1.

As people get ready to cram into the family car to take part in this nostalgic tradition, it’s hard to imagine too much danger is out there beyond bad road games and too much junk food, right? Wrong. Long trips mean sleepless hours behind the wheel, and according to some studies drowsiness can impair driving performance as much as or more than alcohol2.

It’s only recently that we’ve heard much about the dangers of “drowsy driving,” most likely as a result of the car accident that killed comedian James McNair and critically injured comedian Tracy Morgan. The truck driver who struck Morgan’s limo was nearing his legal “drive time limit,” which according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is 11 hours.

In fact, according to the American Automobile Association, drowsy driving is the culprit in 16.5% of deadly traffic accidents and 12.5% of those that require driver/passenger hospitalization.

Many drivers tend to think they know when their drowsiness is affecting their driving ability, but many drivers ignore the symptoms of drowsy driving3 which include

  • Frequent blinking, longer blinks and head nodding
  • Having trouble keeping one’s eyes open and focused
  • Memory lapses or daydreaming
  • Drifting from one’s driving lane or off the road

Drowsy drivers use a range of tactics to deal with their sleepiness while keeping the wheels turning. A recent DMEa survey of 2,000 car owners showed that many of the ways drivers used to stay awake are actually ineffective.

DMEa collected the authoritative and available medical evidence on which “fight the drowse” strategies work, and which don’t:

Drinking caffeine

Caffeine can be an effective, if temporary, drowsy-driving fighter, but should not replace sleep. Caffeine doesn’t overcome the effects of drowsy drivingfor instance, you can still experience “micro-sleeps,” falling asleep for a few seconds unconsciously.

Opening window/sunroof

No evidence of benefit.

Switching drivers

Effective, if the new driver is rested.

Pulling over to exercise/stretch

Contrary to what many people may imagine, offers very little benefit. Exercise only provided a very temporary alertness-effect (only lasting 10-15 minutes) in studies.

Loud music

No benefit, and can serve to distract drivers from their drowsiness.

Turning up AC

No real benefit.


Studies have shown naps between 20 minutes and three hours prevent fatigue and restore alertness. Experts recommend scheduling a driving break every two hours, and napping. Napping is, however, not a substitute for longer sleep, and getting at least seven hours sleep before a long drive is critical.


Notably, among the top 15 things drivers do to fight drowsiness, the third most common method, switching with a rested driver, and the seventh most common, pulling over to nap, are supported as effective by medical evidence and safety experts. The primary method, drinking caffeine, temporarily boosts driver alertness, but is no replacement for sleep.

So, before you or one of your customers pours themselves some dealership coffee to-go and hits the road for a long road-trip or a weekend getaway, don’t forget to bring a rested co-pilot along for the ride.

Road-trip safely, my friends.

SourcesAAA report from Univ. of Pennsylvania (review of medical studies, including Horne and Reyner’s, Horne and Foster’s), National Sleep Foundation white paper, AARP, NHTSA, UCLA Health Sleep Disorders Center, University of Maryland Medical Center.

Mike Martinez is chief marketing officer of DMEautomotive, the industry leader in science-based, results-driven automotive marketing that provides a range of marketing services to the biggest and most innovative automotive organizations in the industry. For more information, email

1 Conducted Spring 2014

2 Dawson and Reid, 1997; Powell, 2001

3 AAA, 2010

Mike Martinez

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