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Keep your eyes on the road

Understand how drowsy driving can be prevented and minimise your risk of getting involved in a sleep-related car crash.

You haven’t had any alcohol to drink, but you’ve been driving for more than ten hours to get to your holiday destination. You didn’t get the best night’s rest the night before and you’re already feeling sleepy. You consider checking into a roadside B&B,  but you’re convinced you can handle the last hour of your drive. But you can’t. Unfortunately, closing your eyes for just a few seconds is enough to make you drift off the road and into a disaster.

As Rob Henst, a sleep scientist at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, explains, if you have been awake for 18 hours straight, your driving abilities are similar to when you have a blood alcohol level of 0.05g/dL, which is currently the legal limit in South Africa. Even if you don’t fall asleep behind the wheel, piloting a car while drowsy will impact your reaction times and influence your ability to make good driving decisions.

And no, you can’t just down a cup of coffee and hope to counteract your sleepiness.

Recent research conducted by the Loughborough Sleep Research Centre in the UK shows that winding down the window, switching on the air conditioner, chewing gum and getting out to stretch your legs have a limited effect.

“These strategies might briefly improve your alertness, but within minutes you will return to the same level of tiredness,” says Grant Stewart, ER24 branch manager at the North Metropole, Western Cape. “Don’t rely on these ideas to keep you awake.”

According to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), yawning or blinking frequently, missing your exit, drifting from your lane and having difficulty remembering the past few kilometres that you’ve driven are all signs that it’s either time to change drivers – or to pull over and rest.

Stewart adds that if possible, don’t drive long distances alone. “If you have a driving companion, you won’t just have someone to talk to; you can also share the driving load. Ensure you get at least eight hours’ sleep before your journey and take a break at least every two hours. Get out of the car, stretch your legs and have something (non-alcoholic) to drink to stay hydrated. If necessary, lock your doors and have a 20-minute power nap in a busy, well-lit rest area or truck stop.”