Avoiding that Peaceful, Sleepy Feeling While Driving

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In cities with a lot of traffic, road rage gets all the media attention. But I’m more regularly afflicted with a more peaceful, sleepy feeling when stuck on Los Angeles’ great bottleneck, the 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass. There’s a mile-long stretch that can take 20 minutes or more to lurch your way through at speeds ranging from zero to five mph. It’s more hypnotic than hackle-raising to me — it’s like the lack of scenery and lack of progress conspire to send me into dreamland.

Driving while drowsy seems like more of an issue for long-haul truckers, shift workers and road trippers, but an informal survey of co-workers and friends who commute showed that I’m not alone in fighting off sleepiness on the daily drive. And driving while drowsy can have serious consequences: it causes one out of six deadly traffic accidents, according to a 2010 survey by the American Automobile Association.

Adequate sleep the night before is clearly the best solution to the problem, but not always possible. Pulling over for a short nap when your eyelids start to droop is the second best strategy, but this is not feasible on the narrow 101/405 interchange.

The only other solution blessed by science is caffeine — about two cups of coffee worth. Downing caffeine via coffee, energy drinks, colas or NoDoz about 20 minutes before you hit the road will give it time to hit your bloodstream.

Another option is to try varying your activities and the car environment as traffic begins to thicken. Keeping your mind alert and changing the environment can help keep sleepiness at bay.

Keep your mind alert with these preventative strategies:

  1. Nibble on something tart, like a green apple or sour candies.
  2. Crunch on ice.
  3. Chew gum.
  4. Sing out loud.
  5. Drive barefoot. It’s just uncomfortable enough to keep you alert. It’s illegal in some places, so check local laws.
  6. Listen to an audio book or podcast.
  7. Roll the windows down, especially if it is cool outside and warm in the car.
  8. Turn up the music. Whatever gets your feet tapping will help keep you alert, at least temporarily.
  9. Reach out and talk to someone on the phone — hands free, of course — conversation and interaction boosts your brain.
  10. Pay attention to your surroundings — move your eyes around, noticing who is in front of you, who is in back. Try not to let your eyes fix on an object for too long. Memorize the license plate of the car in front of you or try to turn it into an anagram.

I’ve found though that once sleepiness sets in, these tricks don’t always work. Remember, the best thing you can do once you’re sleepy is take a short nap, no longer than 20 minutes.

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