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Medication guide to avoid drowsy driving

One in six fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver. Certain medications cause drowsiness. Know which medications pose a risk before you get behind the wheel.

What is drowsy driving? Which medications put you at risk for falling asleep at the wheel? How can you tell if you’re too tired to drive safely? In this article, you’ll find tips and guidance to help you drive responsibly and a list of the warning signs of being too drowsy to drive. 

What is drowsy driving?

Drowsy driving is a major issue on the road today. It is estimated that 1 in 6 fatal crashes involved a drowsy driver. Drowsy driving is defined as operating a motor vehicle while sleepy or fatigued. An insufficient quantity or quality of sleep can lead to sleepiness, which can impair the performance of safety-critical tasks.

How common is drowsy driving?

A study by the National Sleep Foundation found that 20% of people fell asleep behind the wheel in the past year. Drowsy driving is incredibly dangerous. It impairs your ability to react to unexpected events on the road. A driver who falls into a “micro-sleep” on the highway could travel the length of a football field in a handful of seconds. 

Drowsy driving and medication: Who is more likely to drive drowsy?

Drivers who are on medication that causes drowsiness as a side effect are more likely to drive drowsy and are at higher risk of having a fatal accident. This is because the mental faculties of a person diminishes when they are tired or under the influence of a sedative medication. Driving drowsy can lead to misjudgments, errors in decision making, decreased concentration, and slower reaction times.

Be proactive with your doctor. When you are prescribed medication, ask questions about potential side effects and adverse reactions that could affect your ability to drive. 

People who are more likely to drive drowsy include:

  • Drivers taking medications that cause drowsiness
  • Commercial drivers who drive for long shifts
  • Shift workers who sleep during the day and work throughout the night
  • Drivers with untreated sleep disorders such as sleep apnea

What causes people to feel drowsy while driving?

What makes us so likely to feel drowsy while driving? When you are driving, your brain has to work harder to stay alert. Following GPS directions, focusing on the road, and watching out for other cars can be exhausting, especially after long hours on the road. 

In other words, driving can be tiring, both mentally and physically. It requires constant input from the driver to maintain focus, situational awareness, and control. It’s not unusual for drivers to feel sleepy or fatigued while driving, especially after a long shift at work.

Some medications cause drowsy driving

Some medications can cause drowsiness as a side effect. This is not always an issue for patients, but in some cases, sedative effects can cause difficulty with daily activities. It’s important to be aware of sedation or other side effects when prescribed a new medication.

What type of medications pose a drowsy driving risk?

Some medications have sedative side effects that can make driving unsafe. Common medications that can cause drowsy driving include:

  • Certain allergy medications like antihistamines
    • Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
    • Phenergan (promethazine)
    • Vistaril (hydroxyzine)
  • Certain antidepressants such as tricyclic antidepressants
    • Silenor (doxepin)
    • Elavil (amitriptyline)
    • Tofranil (imipramine)
  • Sleep medications
    • Ambien (zolpidem)
    • Lunesta (eszopiclone)
    • Sonata (zaleplon)
  • Certain kinds of anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines
    • Xanax (alprazolam)
    • Ativan (lorazepam)
    • Valium (diazepam)
  • Blood pressure medications
    • Lopressor (metoprolol tartrate)
    • Toprol XL (metoprolol succinate)
    • Tenormin (atenolol)

What are signs that you should stop driving?

If you are at risk for drowsy driving because of a medication, medical condition, or situation that requires long hours of driving, the signs below may signal that it’s time to pull over and take a nap.

Frequent yawning

Yawning a lot? Pull over and take a nap. Repeated, uncontrollable yawning is a sure sign that it’s time to stop driving. According to reports from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, about 328,000 crashes a year are the result of drowsy driving. In this same study, reports showed that people were injured in 109,000 of those drowsy driving crashes and about 6,400 of those accidents were fatal.

Can’t keep eyes open

If you feel your eyes drooping, that’s a serious sign that you are drowsy and should not be driving. For example, if you notice you’re blinking frequently, you’re at risk of falling asleep behind the wheel. Instead of trying to push through the fatigue, pull over and take a power nap. 

Drifting into other lanes or hitting “rumble strips” on the road

If you’re having trouble staying in your lane, or find yourself “correcting” often, you’re definitely showing signs of serious fatigue. Many new cars have sensors that beep when you drift out of your lane, which should help you notice when you are driving drowsy. But just because the car alerts you doesn’t mean you should keep driving. That’s a sign you should stop.

Inability to remember the last few miles

Some people have what is called highway hypnosis, a condition where they can’t remember the last few miles they drove. This leads to a higher risk of accidents as the person is not as attentive as they should be. When you’re driving, especially at night, take a few minutes to think back. Do you remember the last few miles? If not, you need to take a break. 

Missing a road sign or exit

We all occasionally miss exits. But if you’re missing exits frequently, your attention is divided and it could stem from drowsy driving.

Following other cars too closely

One of the major warning signs of drowsy driving is accidentally tailgating other cars. If you’re too close to the other cars on the road, you could cause an accident if the car in front of you unexpectedly shortstops. 

Difficulty maintaining proper speed

Not sure why you keep slowing down? You could be tired. Even though maintaining speed is usually second nature, it’s hard to keep a steady pressure on the gas pedal when you’re drowsy. 

How to avoid driving drowsy on the road

Driving while drowsy is a major safety risk and can lead to accidents, but there are ways that you can avoid driving while fatigued. The number one way to avoid driving drowsy is to have a good night’s rest before driving. 

Stay hydrated, but avoid heavy, fatty foods like fries. Never drink alcohol and drive. You can also take naps before driving, keep the car at a comfortable temperature, and fuel up with caffeine or sugar. However, caffeine and sugar are temporary solutions and may worsen drowsiness once their effects wear off. 

What can you do if you realize you are driving while fatigued?

Don’t ignore the warning signs. If you get drowsy while driving, it is best to try drinking a caffeinated beverage or energy drink, taking a short break from driving, or stopping to take a nap. If there are other people in the car who can drive, ask them to take a turn at the wheel. If you’re driving alone, stop to stretch your legs and walk around in the fresh air.

Drowsy driving facts & stats

  • An estimated 328,000 crashes are caused by drivers who are drowsy driving due to medication, fatigue, or sleep deprivation. 
  • Drivers under 25 are responsible for around 50% or more of drowsy driving crashes. 
  • If you’re tired, you’re three times more likely to be in a car crash. 
  • After 20 hours without sleep, focus and attention while driving becomes equivalent to driving with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08%, or driving drunk. 

Although the consequences of driving while fatigued may not seem serious, it can be fatal. The National Sleep Foundation recommends taking a break from driving after two hours of being awake and sleeping for at least seven to nine hours before going on a long drive

Drowsy driving and medication: Key takeaways

It is important to know that drowsy driving can be just as lethal as drunk driving. The best way to avoid drowsy driving is to avoid driving when you are feeling sleepy. You can also drink caffeine, power nap, or take turns driving if you are feeling drowsy while on the road. You should also consult your doctor for guidance on whether you can drive while taking a medication known to cause drowsiness.