Drowsy driving is drunk driving. Why is this happening?
October 1, 2010 11:45 PM   Subscribe

Why do I get sleepy when I drive even though I feel completely rested?

Once or twice a week, I make a routine drive to my boyfriend's place that is about an hour away, spend most of my day with him and then drive back home in the evening around 11pm. More often than not, I'll get drowsy a few miles into the trip (going and coming back, but mostly coming back) and am fighting it the whole way home. I don't even want to count how many times I've completely closed my eyes for a few seconds and then had to jerk the wheel straight or tap on the brakes.

A couple notes:
Even though I've had a day of fun, I don't feel overwhelmingly tired or exhausted when I get in the car. I don't start the drive tired.

I fall asleep easily when in cars (if the drive is more than 20 minutes long, driven by others), trains and airplanes.

The time of day doesn't seem to matter. Most recently, I had to make the drive home in the middle of the day and the drowsiness still hit me.

I'm in LA, driving about 70-80 mph steadily. (unless there's traffic which I can get very drowsy in.)

I may have had one drink (well cocktail or light beer) earlier in the day (at least 5 hours before I start my drive)

When I feel like I'm really losing the fight, I exit the freeway and feel better when I'm no longer travelling at freeway speeds, not necessarily coming to a complete stop. When I get back on, the drowsiness will hit me a few minutes in.

I've been trying to figure out through trial and error by adjusting one factor during my drives.. Its far from scientific but here are the things I've tried:

Windows cracked, no AC vs windows up, AC on (maybe the oxygen levels in the car drop or something?)

Music on loud vs Music on softly vs Music off (I listen to pop/hip hop music mostly. On one particular night, I turned my loud music off with a quarter of the way to go and almost instantly stopped feeling drowsy. I was never able to reproduce the effect again though)

What do you guys think is causing my sleepiness? Is it the vibrations of the car? Something else? I feel like if I understand what's happening on a biological level I can deal with it better.

Thanks in advance for your help and suggestions are welcome! I know caffeine is a solution, but I'm trying to avoid it.
posted by p1nkdaisy to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If all other factors are removed (and you seem to be pretty steadily changing the factors), I'd say you're on the right track when it comes to the vibrations of the car. It could also be the white noise-ish effect of the humming of the road, or the monotony of the drive itself.

As for suggestions to keep yourself awake...could you call your boyfriend (or someone else) on speakerphone and have a good conversation? If that doesn't work, maybe a very engaging audiobook? Perhaps a route that isn't along the freeway, for a change of landscape?
posted by xingcat at 11:51 PM on October 1, 2010

It's a combination of the routine nature of the drive (you've driven it many times before, you know exactly where you're going and what you'll see along the way, and you don't have to engage your brain to actively think about it) and the rhythmic nature of riding in the car itself (there's a reason why desperate parents take their wide-awake babies for car rides in the middle of the night).
posted by amyms at 11:52 PM on October 1, 2010

This may sound simplistic, but do you have any music on? If so, what kind? If not, well, why not? I have a long commute at an ungodly hour of the morning, and it often scares me because I have such a hard time waking up that I feel like I'm going to pass out on the road. My solution has always been the time-tested windows open, coffee in hand like a pacifier, and suitable music that I will engage with playing at a volume that does not allow me to even consider fading out of consciousness.

As far as why....do you normally get tired around 11 pm whether or not you're on the road? It seems from your question that these visits are pretty regularly scheduled and you do the driving at the same time of the day most of the time. Maybe you're just not a night person? Can you either spend the night there and leave early in the morning, or otherwise adjust the timing of your visits?
posted by deep thought sunstar at 12:02 AM on October 2, 2010

oh.....just reread your question and time of day doesn't seem to matter. Well, then....never mind that point. Sorry!
posted by deep thought sunstar at 12:03 AM on October 2, 2010

This happens to me as well. It's awful and scary. I don't have an explanation for it, but I suspect it is general lack of sleep (I have trouble getting a full night's rest) and so on long trips I often pinch my ears every 10 minutes or so to keep from microsleeping. The pain sharpens me right up.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:04 AM on October 2, 2010

General road monotony, I think. I had the same problem when I was driving regularly. My problem was keeping my brain engaged long enough so that I didn't do anything stupid.

I had minor success with suddenly changing my environment. In winter, I'd roll down the window for a minute (oh man was that cold). Even the sudden loud noise from the window would be enough to bring my brain back to reality.

If you have someone else driving with you, and they can get to it, have them sneak out a hand and turn your wipers on for a second. If nobody else is with you, just turn 'em on yourself.

For music, play it loud enough that you can hear but not super loud. And have a bunch of wildly different musical styles, played on a random basis. J-pop, rock, American classical, opera, jazz, folk, whatever ... you get a nice change of pace every few minutes, and occasionally go WTF at the combinations.

If you can find something to talk to -- not necessarily someone -- that may help. I think Cali has that weird cellphone-in-the-car law thing, but can you still use a speakerphone? If not, maybe some sort of semi-interactive recording to get you talking. Hell, talk to the people around you like they're right next to you in the car. Let out your inner snarkitude. Or have lively imaginary discussions with story characters. After all, who's gonna hear it?

On really long hauls, I took to taking a break every two hours, even if it was just to stop, walk around the car once, and get back in. For shorter drives, that might not help as much...

If it's only an hour drive, maybe you could try tea instead of soda or coffee? Lots of different kinds to try and something else to keep your brain awake.
posted by Heretical at 12:07 AM on October 2, 2010

I have this problem, and probably at about the same severity level. My advice would be to avoid music - go with some kind of spoken word recording that you haven't heard before, that can engage you. NPR could be good, podcasts, things like that.

Also - slow down. Not because of some added danger - I have noticed that slowing down to 60 or so alleviates the problem somewhat.

I don't think the problem is any one thing - it's the whole combination - seating position, movement of the car, the darkness, passing the lines on the highway (some kind of hypnotic effect?). When you get "locked in" AND your brain can effectively turn off because there is no route finding to do, that seems to be the problem combo.

So - snacks to keep me moving within the car, something engaging to listen to, and a slightly reduce speed limit seem to have worked for me.
posted by mikel at 12:44 AM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Classic highway hypnosis.

Basically, driving on a highway, you're met with a barrage of repetitive stimuli, and your brain sort of checks out. This can manifest as a lack of memory of the drive, or as a classic YOU ARE GETTING SLEEEEPY... The latter is more prevalent at night, and on straight stretches of highway.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:23 AM on October 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

The trick they taught us in Driver's Ed was to listen to music that annoys you so that you focus on being annoyed with it and stay awake. An engaging audiobook or podcast, though, might offer something similar. (Maybe grab some horror fiction off Pseudopod and scare yourself awake.) Alternatively, singing along with music might help. Keeping the AC on but on might not be enough-- you might want to have it on full blast so the cold keeps you awake.

I'm still not totally sure if this is bullshit/placebo effect or not, but the smells that they put in body washes that are supposed to wake you up help me get up-- maybe having something like that in your car could help-- citrus scents work well for me. (YMMV on this sort of thing.)

You might also consider turning cruise control off so you're more engaged with driving itself. (Assuming you already have it on.)

Are there any alternate routes you could take? Side roads, scenic routes, etc? If it's highway-specific, that might help.

And also... good on you for acknowledging this is a problem and fixing it.
posted by NoraReed at 2:10 AM on October 2, 2010

Please, please make sure that you don't have a carbon monoxide leak in your car. Get a battery-operated detector at a hardware store (drive there with the windows open) and if you find that CO is leaking into your car, get it fixed immediately. Even if your symptoms don't precisely match those listed, you could still have a leak--a friend of mine had no nausea/vomiting, but would be unbearably sleepy while driving. Turns out she had a problem with her car's exhaust.
posted by corey flood at 2:25 AM on October 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Another option along Blazecock Pileon's suggestion: on a long drive home recently, I was experiencing the same thing as you, and I hit on holding an ice cube in my mouth for as long as I could (then chewing it). We'd stopped for lunch, so I had a giant cup of ice cubes to work through, and that helped me make it home. It's painful enough to keep you awake.
posted by emkelley at 4:36 AM on October 2, 2010

Splash cool water on your face and open the window. The water evaporating will chill your face and invigorate you. Also, download a burn episodes of The Bugle audio podcast onto CD to listen to - humor is a great way to stay awake.
posted by carlh at 4:48 AM on October 2, 2010

How's your blood sugar? Hypoglycemic episodes on a long drive can manifest as drowsiness or sudden microsleeps.
posted by Sallyfur at 5:06 AM on October 2, 2010

This happens to me. I suspect it could be a brain thing: you have an exciting or unusual day, so your brain makes sure you are fully focussed all day, then as soon as you sit still for a minute your brain decides you're done and it's nap time. Does this ever happen when you're on the way TO something interesting?

Things that help me:

Being very cold.
Stopping at a service station and having a nap.
Not driving long distances late in the day at all.
Getting off the motorway and driving little winding roads instead.
posted by emilyw at 5:22 AM on October 2, 2010

Some analysts equal the dangers of driving when drowsy with the risks involved when driving drunk, and assign responsibility accordingly. Your mileage (hah) may vary, depending on which country you're in, but you do indeed have a good reason for trying to break the circle here.

One trick mentioned in Swedish driver's classes is to keep your eyes active. Highway driving especially provides too few stimuli; you're likely to fix your gaze on some small area ahead and be done with it. This slows your brain down big time. If you roll your eyes at this comment, you're doing fine already. Roll'em some more (free after Julia Child via Meryl Streep: "You're alone in the car. Whoo's to seee..."). Try to look at stuff that zips past and name it in your mind - make an active effort of keeping your mind active in other words (example: past roadkill, don't get lost in musing about the sadness of roadkill happening, or whether possums are rodents or not [they're not], but think "okay, what's next") [needless to say, stay on the road, too].

Driving off the highway and walking about for a few minutes waving your arms etc. helps you through approximately 20 minutes of future driving, a little depending on outside temperatures. So if you're really groggy, you can plan out your trip with regular stops and arrive safely home anyway.

Otherwise I'd agree with the "cold" - bit. Open your window or put the heating on low (in the cold season) or put your AC on just lower than comfortable.

I've also stopped and bought a Coke. Not my thing otherwise, but effective in this case.

(Music only makes me more sleepy)
posted by Namlit at 7:15 AM on October 2, 2010

I get this a lot too. A few things that have helped me:

--singing, loudly and energetically.
--moving my head: tip it side to side, pivot, rotate, even (briefly) turning it as far as possible to one side and then the next.
--moving and flexing arms/shoulders, one at a time; make a fist, flex the bicep, rotate the shoulder round and round. Basically, anything that gets some movement going and blood flowing, without compromising your control of the car.
--and as emilyw suggests, if it's possible to take a two-lane blacktop instead of the interstate, that always keeps me more wakeful.
posted by Kat Allison at 7:22 AM on October 2, 2010

This happened to me regularly until I got my eyes check and got a prescription. I think in my case the eye strain from slightly poor vision combined with night driving was making my eyes feel like they wanted to close.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:52 AM on October 2, 2010

California-style Sunny Delite has such a ghastly face-crunching flavor that if I'm feeling drowsy and still have a long way to drive, I stop at a convenience store and buy a bottle.

All other tricks aside, if you take a sip off that bottle when you're sleepy, your face contorts and you end up trying to rub that taste out of your tongue. Don't guzzle the whole thing, just take a sip out of it, let your reaction keep you awake until the effect starts to wear off. Then, another sip. A bottle of that stuff can last a long time.

I can get ultra-caffeinated and all that, but after a while it stops working with the same effect. That neon orange Sunny D never fails to shock me awake.
posted by phoebus at 8:09 AM on October 2, 2010

I've sometimes found drinking lots and lots of fluid helps; both the hydration, and the "OMG I GOTTA PEE" thing help me keep awake.
posted by The otter lady at 8:23 AM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Keep a wet washcloth in a baggie with some ice cubes and wipe your face with it whenever you feel drowsy. Very refreshing!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 8:34 AM on October 2, 2010

I suggest not fighting the sleepy feeling. Pull off the highway somewhere safe and have a 10 to 15 min nap. I find giving into the sleepy feeling helps me get over it rather that drive with the heavy eyes and long blinking.
posted by saradarlin at 8:53 AM on October 2, 2010

Snacking is the only thing that eliminates driving drowsiness for me. Better a few extra calories for the day than end up in the ditch!
posted by Pomo at 9:52 AM on October 2, 2010

Get a different car. Generally, I have a hard time falling asleep in a car when I'm a passenger, much less a driver. Normally, it's not a problem for me to drive even 16 hours a day. Certain vehicles, however, put me to sleep and there's nothing I can do about it.
posted by wierdo at 12:50 PM on October 2, 2010

Play radio stations that make you angry. You can find all kinds of religious and political craziness on the AM dial. Pick your least favourite, put it on and shout at it like a maniac.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:02 PM on October 2, 2010

I have very similar symptoms and experiences, and stimulants and naps can only do so much. Pepsi Max is my drug of choice.

The big difference maker is, I agree, mental stimulation. I've got a few hours of podcasts (yeah, mostly public radio) stashed on an old iPod in the glove box. Audiobooks do the same; Michael Lewis' "The Big Short" got me from Seattle to Lewiston and back twice with zero nodding off.

Pallas Athena's suggestion made me smile: As a late-night last resort, Michael Savage has seen me home safe and sound multiple times.
posted by Kakkerlak at 3:39 PM on October 2, 2010

I think it's somewhat normal to become drowsy while driving... especially at 11pm on an hour drive. I mean, You're just sitting there in a car staring at the back of cars.

Since I have narcolepsy, I have had to pull over a number of times in my life.
The only things that helped me on longer drives were - a bluetooth headset (talking to friends/family), music I can sing along with, medications, energy drinks and smoking. I'm obviously not suggesting that you start up a drug/smoking habit, though.

But, the music, rolling down the windows, using the a/c never helped me.

Is it only driving that makes you feel drowsy?
Are you tired during any other time of the day?

Also, I'm glad you sometimes pull off. I used to try and fight it and am lucky I have never been in an accident. There are a number of deaths in accidents that occur because of drowsy driving.
posted by KogeLiz at 3:40 PM on October 2, 2010

I have the same problem. I'm pretty sure it's just the repetitiveness of the drive. It doesn't help that my drive is nothing but corn fields... very boring.

Sucking on a hard candy or chewing a piece of gum helps.

I also either listen to an audiobook, or play a lot of music...specifically music that I can sing along with. If I'm singing, I'm awake. Sometimes I have to switch from book to music, or vice versa because it's not cutting it.

Be careful of calling someone to talk to. It might wake you up, but it's actually not that safe. The problem with people talking on their cell phone in the car isn't solved by bluetooth. It's not the phone, it's the talking. Humans can't actually multi-task, we can only switch between 2 tasks quickly. (this doesn't seem to apply to having a passenger though, mostly because the passenger is another pair of eyes on the road, and they know to be quiet when you're in a tricky spot)
posted by Caravantea at 5:09 PM on October 2, 2010

Definitely check for leaking carbon monoxide! I had an old car which would always put me to sleep... no matter what time of day it was, even if I was chugging black coffee the whole time. It turned out that I had a CO leak, which I only found out about when I moved provinces and had to get my car inspected in order to register it. So please, get it checked out, no amount of talk radio will help if that's what it is.
posted by meringue at 10:05 PM on October 2, 2010

My mom used to get tired driving and it turned out to be sleep apnea.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:36 PM on October 2, 2010

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