Many law-abiding, risk-averse drivers get behind the wheel unaware that their actions might be factually, if not legally, equivalent to driving drunk. Lack of sleep can affect the body in ways similar to drinking alcohol, increasing the likelihood of getting into an accident.
When most people think of sleep deprivation, they imagine someone who has not slept for over 24 hours. Of course, this extreme lack of sleep tends to have dramatic effects and can lead to the headlines you see about crashes happening because the driver literally fell asleep while driving.
Even slight sleep deprivation can increase risks
However, even missing as little as one or two hours from a full night’s sleep can affect your ability to drive safely. You may not doze off, but you may find your reflexes slowing and your attention wandering, just enough to prevent you from reacting to a vehicle cutting in front of you, a traffic sign or an object in the road.
Assessing your level of drowsiness
One of the risks of drowsy driving is the fact that you may underestimate your level of fatigue and overestimate your ability to overcome it. Moreover, you may need more sleep than others to function optimally, so just knowing you slept a certain amount of hours may not suffice. In addition, disorders such as sleep apnea can make you extremely tired even when you think you slept all night long.
Signs of danger
Watching out for common warning signs of drowsiness can help you avoid disaster. These include blinking often, increased daydreaming, difficulty paying attention, heavy eyelids, irritability and slowness or heaviness in your limbs. If you experience any of these, avoid getting behind the wheel. If you are already on the road, pull over as soon as possible.
Factors that increase risk
People at higher risk for drowsy driving include shift workers, commercial drivers and people who routinely undersleep. Shift workers may experience fatigue even when technically getting enough hours, as the resulting sleep pattern may decrease the quality of rest. Alcohol (even in amounts below the legal limit) and some common medications may also cause or increase sleepiness.