We've all experienced it—you think you're awake and alert, but once you get behind the wheel of a vehicle, fatigue suddenly hits. Driver fatigue is a serious problem on the road and can be downright dangerous. People who love road trips or drive long distances for work especially need to be cautious. Many people find it strange that driving leads to an urge to sleep.
On the surface, it might seem like driving is a passive activity, so it should be a piece of cake. So why does driving make you tired? Let's look into why you might get tired on a drive, then get motivated to do all you can to avoid falling asleep at the wheel.
What is driver fatigue?
Unfortunately, driver fatigue is something most people are familiar with. As the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) explains, fatigue "is the result of physical or mental exertion that impairs performance." Even though when you're driving, your body appears to be still, you're working quite hard, so you may experience drowsiness or lack of energy.
Driver fatigue is estimated to cause approximately one out of five motor vehicle crashes in the U.S., per the CDC, so it's not something to take lightly.
Why does driving make you tired?
Driving may make you tired for due to lack of sleep, of course, but there are other reasons that can compound driver fatigue. The FMCSA explains that due to the body's circadian rhythms (cycle of waking and sleeping hours), not getting enough sleep can compound the fatigue you feel during natural dips in energy, which can reduce driver alertness.
Another cause of driver fatigue, per the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), can be "monotonous tasks or long periods of inactivity." NIOSH includes a lack of sleep over multiple days as a cause, along with sleep disorders or being on medications that can cause drowsiness.
An FMCSA study also showed driver alertness was more impacted by "time-of-day" than "time on task". Drivers were more likely to feel tired at night, particularly after midnight.
Given these causes of driver fatigue, the ideal steps to combat it would be getting enough sleep (7-9 hours a day, per NIOSH), pulling over for breaks if tired, and following protocols for mandatory sleep/rest periods.
Driver fatigue monitoring systems may help.
Technology is also a means of helping to fight driver fatigue. Fatigue monitoring devices and wearables can benefit drivers and anyone at risk of fatigue on the job. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), fatigue monitoring devices can use electroencephalography (EEG) sensors to monitor brain activity, look for signs of fatigue and "microsleeps," and calculate fatigue risk levels with data on sleep and activity.
For example, a driver fatigue monitoring system by Speedir uses AI to track a driver's eye movement and head position, which can help note tired or distracted driving. It also gives an "audible alert" whenever it notes the driver falling asleep, using a cell phone, and other distractions such as fiddling with the radio.