Keeping both eyes on the road
August 20, 2007 5:29 PM   Subscribe

How can I stay awake while driving?

I have to take an 8-hour drive tomorrow. It is common for me to start to feel sleepy after a couple of hours behind the wheel. My usual antidote is to stop every couple of hours, get a drink, walk around a bit, etc. If that does not work I am not averse to taking a 20-minute catnap.

But is there some combination of preventive techniques that will help? I will already be using a couple of common-sense ones: no drinks tonight, plenty of sleep, little or no potatoes or bread at breakfast. But are there any others, such as high levels or low levels of protein, etc.? (A "redeye" in the morning is not an option; I will be nowhere near a yuppie coffee stand.)
posted by yclipse to Travel & Transportation (41 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Loud music is helpful!
posted by k8t at 5:35 PM on August 20, 2007

lay off the carbs to prevent a sugar crash, definitely. a good music mix with dramatic genre shifts might keep you from getting lulled into a rhythm. caffeine is always good (diet, so you can avoid the sugar), as is a nap if you can do it.

maybe a really engaging book on tape would help?

a friend of mine was once so tired while driving that he shouted at himself the whole way home. i wouldn't recommend this.

driving tired is pull over if you feel sleepy.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:39 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

i have this very problem, and it has been severe and dangerous for years! This is what i have learned in the past year, and it has worked quite well:

stay very caffeinated and do all the things you need to do to stay awake - but do all these things long before you even begin to get tired or sleepy

once i get sleepy, it's too late and no matter what i do i can't snap out of it, short of stopping for hours and i don't have time for that crap

Soooo...if you're feeling good, awake, OK after a couple hours, or even 1.5 hours, stop off, get a coffee, use the bathroom, stretch, put in your favorite cd and hit teh road, when you feel the slightest hint of tiredness, or after a good long streak, maybe a few more hours, do the same, wake yourself up even tho you feel awake

this has worked on several long drives for me!
posted by Salvatorparadise at 5:41 PM on August 20, 2007

My defensive driving teacher recommended keeping the car as cold as possible and listing to a genre of music you greatly dislike. If you can still get comfortable in that's time to nap, no matter where you are.
posted by backupjesus at 5:44 PM on August 20, 2007

i) Drink plenty of water. It helps keep your body functioning at capacity, and it's hard to sleep when you have to pee.

ii) Music you like, or at least find interesting, is a good idea. Books on tape are wonderful for boring highway driving, as they keep your mind occupied without disrupting your driving ability.

iii) If you are feeling really, really tired, don't stay on the road and valiantly push yourself to stay awake; pull over to the shoulder, set your watch alarm, and zonk. It's better to be a little late than a little dead.
posted by tehloki at 5:45 PM on August 20, 2007

I drive barefoot when I'm tired, and curl my toes to induce cramps. Also I use a pen cap or toothpick to tickle the inside of my nose so that I'm constantly sneezing. You may or may not want to incorporate my tactics.
posted by vito90 at 5:47 PM on August 20, 2007

There's a procedure called a "caffeine nap" that is supposed to be a good remedy for driver sleepiness. Essentially, you gulp down a cup of regular coffee and then immediately sleep for 15 minutes.

I also find that singing or talking to oneself can help.
posted by fermion at 5:53 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Loud, fast music, lots of caffeine, open windows or enough AC that it's too cold for comfort. And if you get too tired, just stop. It's worth paying for a motel 6 room even if you just use it for a few hours. Trust me, you don't want to be in a car crash at freeway speeds, even the best case outcome sucks a whole hell of a lot. You don't need a "yuppie coffee stand" to survive, just down a gas station coffee or an energy drink. It's fuel, not a treat.

You don't mention what time you're leaving tomorrow, but if it's a night drive and you have the option, try to stay up late tonight and then sleep in tomorrow morning.
posted by contraption at 5:53 PM on August 20, 2007

I never got into caffeine and if I need this sort of energy (for me, it's generally been staying up all working) I do the opposite of avoiding a sugar crash. Keep putting sugar in, in the form of sugary kool aid drinks or just sugar water. They taste about the same when you generally avoid sweetened crap like that. As long as you keep drinking it, you keep going. Not good for you, but at least sugar is made of energy unlike caffeine which is made of drugs.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:56 PM on August 20, 2007

*staying up all night working
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:59 PM on August 20, 2007

Too late for tomorrow but for future reference - if it works - the Wake up angle.

Also here.
posted by Kensational at 5:59 PM on August 20, 2007

I have been known to slap myself, hard, across the face when I was tired and wasn't somewhere I could stop.

I also kept a few Starbucks bottled Frappuccino coffee drinks in the car with me when I drove alone from FL to Los Angeles. I'd have one, it'd make me need to pee after a while, I'd stop at a gas station to use the facilities and fill up with gas and pick up a new drink while I was in there. I'd walk around the lot for a bit and stretch before heading back off. And needing to pee does wonders for one's alertness level.

If you can get friends to make you a CD of unfamiliar songs, that can also help a lot. Or make a playlist of things you can sing along to (pity the passengers, but hey, driver picks the music :) ).
posted by fuzzbean at 6:01 PM on August 20, 2007

Angle/Angel, whatever. I guess 'angle' might have been better anyway, 'Angel' might make it too late!
posted by Kensational at 6:02 PM on August 20, 2007

There is only one thing that works for me. I owe my life to Sugar Free Redbull. One can lasts around 2 hours.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:05 PM on August 20, 2007

Sing. Very very loudly. This only works if you are the only one in the car.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:44 PM on August 20, 2007

ok, this is what you need:

something to listen to that will occupy your mind and keep it working, not relaxing. for me, this is talk radio, really complicated music i need to pay close attention to, or music i know the words to and can sing out loud.

something to keep your blood flowing and muscles moving, even a little bit. gum is good. pistachios or sunflower seeds are better. snacks = calories = energy. snacks with inherent activities will keep you from relaxing also.

to stay hydrated and caffeinate on a regular schedule. for me, this is red bull. on a 500 mile 8 hour drive after being awake all day, i try to do an 8.4 oz can of red bull every two hours or so. a big bottle of water will keep blood flowing and the system working and will make you have to pee. when was the last time you fell asleep when you had to pee really bad?

discomfort. drive barefoot, the added sensations will help. heat is bad, cool or cold is good. when you're comfortable, you relax and when you relax, you sleep. sleep is bad. making good time is all that's important.

good luck with your drive. get there and home safe.
posted by knowles at 6:50 PM on August 20, 2007

Red Bull works for me.
posted by JayRwv at 6:50 PM on August 20, 2007

Agree with many people already - keep the car cold, wind the windows down, loud fast music and a bit of caffeine.

That said - once you start getting drowsy, get off the road. No amount of effort to stay awake is worth it if you do fall asleep or zone out.
posted by chris88 at 6:53 PM on August 20, 2007

Pinch your earlobe.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:03 PM on August 20, 2007

CunningLinguist has it. CDs of music that you can (and will) sing aloud to at top volume, the entire trip. I find Piebald's "If It Weren't For Venetian Blinds" album to work perfectly in this application.
posted by saladin at 7:17 PM on August 20, 2007

Invigorating essential oils like pine, cypress, peppermint might help.

You can put a few drops on a tissue and inhale, or you can get a diffuser that plugs into your cigarette lighter.
posted by solongxenon at 7:18 PM on August 20, 2007

I keep the car cold, interact with the music/radio (singing or talking back), and drive barefoot whenever possible. Mostly, I think the key is to use the muscles that would otherwise just wait for you to arrive: flex your legs and feet, move your handgrip and flex your hand and arms, talk, etc.

And tehloki has it exactly: you are never so alert as when you have to pee for 40-100 miles. I drink lots of liquid -- tea, diet coke, water, whatever.
posted by janell at 7:19 PM on August 20, 2007

Nthing singing. Force your brain awake by singing without accompaniment every song you know. Whole songs, partial songs, choruses, partial verses, stupid childhood and campfire songs. The goal is to force your brain to keep firing on all cylinders by concentrating.

Good luck, and safe drive tomorrow!!
posted by LN at 7:26 PM on August 20, 2007

I read a study once (six years ago) that said that the smell of mint helped people stay awake.

Otherwise, I read that catnaps help.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:31 PM on August 20, 2007

Pluck out your nostril hairs. Instant alertness.
posted by tim_in_oz at 8:02 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

if you've got a cellphone, give your phone number out to friends and ask that they call you occasionally and chat with you. alternately, when doing the occasional rest stop, make phone calls and chat with folks. interacting with other people tends to work better to engage the brain than just singing loudly.

speaking of having trouble staying awake while driving, if it's a chronic problem, it's possible that this is related to a sleep disorder. i read a while back that some notable percentage of sleep apnea sufferers were diagnosed after falling asleep behind the wheel and having accidents.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:33 PM on August 20, 2007

Oh, this is also very important: be able to recognize when you are too tired to drive. Heavy lids, 'micronaps' (falling asleep for 1-5 seconds), drifting, waking up in a different lane, hallucination, etc. Don't be a hero. Getting there 30-45 minutes late because you stopped for a nap is much better than not getting there at all because you hit a telephone pole.
posted by knowles at 8:55 PM on August 20, 2007

I've heard sunflower seeds help you stay awake, but seeds and nuts are full of calories and fat. Just go easy on them. Don't eat anything with a ton of calories or that is really heavy. That will cause all your blood to flow to your stomach and away from your brain=drowsiness. Don't eat during your entire trip. You'll feel like a fried chicken when you get to your destination if you do. Crunchy stuff helps me, e.g., carrots, other veggies. A bit of granola is nice, but also high in calories so watch out. Moderation.
Get out every hour or so and do some jumping jacks and stretches at rest stops. Drink mineral water.
Think of all the ways you'd like so see the annoying drivers on the road die. The one thing that keeps me going during a long drive is rage.
Red Bull does wonders, as well.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:35 PM on August 20, 2007

I was always a fan of the book-on-tape/CD when driving through the night. Audio books can be sucky, abbreviated Readers Digestized bastardizations of their honest-to-goodness original authorial-intent selves, but they'll keep your brain focused for hours upon hours while the talk radio stations singals fade in and out of tune.

It's been quite some time since I've done marathon drives -- back in the day I'd buy books on tape at truck stops, and subject myself to Michael Crichton's Sphere as I traversed the highways of The South. Check your local library to see if you can checkout (or download) audiobooks for the duration.
posted by mumkin at 9:47 PM on August 20, 2007

Expel all the air from your lungs using your diaphragm then inhale from the bottom up. Hold breath until desperation sets in. Release, recover, repeat. It never fails to reinvigorate. It's like a mega-yawn.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:51 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

nthing music that you can sing along to - being actively engaged in something other than watching the road helps.

For long trips, I find that audiobooks help a ton - put one on my ipod and I've got something interesting to listen to while leaving enough of my attention to drive. It's also a great way to get to new books. Two weeks ago I did about 45 hours of driving over a week, and Issac Assimov's Foundation series was a great help; it made the time fly by, too.
posted by Galt at 9:53 PM on August 20, 2007

I've learned that what hypnotizes me or tires me out is concentrating on maintaining a consistent gap with the car in front of me, which requires constant speed adjustment. If I do that for more than an hour, my eyelids droop and my head nods.

I recently took to driving slightly slower than the average traffic speed. Most traffic flows at about 10 km/h above the speed limit -- so if I go at about 7 or 8 km/h above the speed limit, I'm not really holding anyone up but there's always clear road in front of me. Ever since I adopted this practice, I've found myself remaining fully alert for several hours at a time.

Give it a try. I think following the car in front is much more tiring than we expect.
posted by randomstriker at 12:21 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

My secret has always been to exercise. At 2am, it doesn't look all that strange when some bloke is doing sprints to the trash can and back. The object isn't speed, just getting the blood pumping again. I've driven from Truth or Consequences, NM to Austin in one go with this method (with a cross-border Jaurez adventure in between).

I also make a pretty mean giant chilled coffee out of vanilla creamer, ice to the brim of the largest cup, and coffee. It's nice to chew on the ice when you're done.

I agree with Galt that music can be too much when really tired. I like NPR podcasts, particularly This American Life, for drives. You really, really want to get to the end.
posted by trinarian at 1:57 AM on August 21, 2007

My savior on long car trips (i'm going to be doing an 18-hour one in two days! ahh!) Is old episodes of This American Life and A Prairie Home Companion. I've also done books-on-tape. I can't do but the loudest, singalongiest, groovealongiest music after i've been driving for more than four hours, and TAL especially is just engaging enough to take my mind off of the tedium, and give it something to do.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 1:57 AM on August 21, 2007

Surely you searched AskMefi and found this...
posted by zardoz at 2:23 AM on August 21, 2007

I'm surprised no-one's mentioned pseudoephedrin. The non-drowsy version will keep you awake -- there's also a drowsy version for nighttime, and obviously you shouldn't take that.
posted by creasy boy at 3:37 AM on August 21, 2007

I read somewhere about driving with one shoe on, one shoe off. It has been a while since I tried it, but it appeared to work for a while.
posted by vagabond at 4:22 AM on August 21, 2007

I suggest waiting until you're getting sleepy, then have coffee. Don't just start out super caffienated...and having snacks too helps. Also books on tape. Good Luck.
posted by starfish at 6:03 AM on August 21, 2007

What works for me on long trips is a very engaging audiobook, preferably a thriller (a la Clancy or Patterson) or something that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Good stories make the time pass famously.
posted by mikshir at 2:29 PM on August 21, 2007

You can get sleepy if your blood pressure drops, and sitting for a long time will do that, at least in your head which where it counts. So try wiggling your toes, moving your feet around to keep the blood moving up to your head. That has banished the heavy eyelids for me more than a few times.
posted by beagle at 5:41 PM on August 21, 2007

On a regular basis, I am called upon to stay up all night working. I've found that carbohydrates (sugars in particular) make me sleepy, and sticking to a very protein-heavy diet on those days helps fuel me through the night.

Therefore: be mindful of sugar-heavy energy drinks, for with them comes the inevitable crash. Pseudoephedra are good, too.
posted by myrrh at 3:58 PM on August 22, 2007

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