Safe Roads: True or False: Caffeine Will Save You

Tom Hess

No matter how rockin’ your road-trip soundtrack, or how dedicated your co-traveler, drowsy driving will be one of the biggest challenges you’ll face this summer traveling season.

How does AAA know that drowsy driving is a common affliction? Each year, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety releases its Traffic Safety Culture Index. In 2016, the Foundation reported that 41 percent of those surveyed reported having “fallen asleep or nodded off” while driving at least once in their lifetime; and 27 percent said that, in the past month, they had driven while they were “so sleepy that they had a hard time keeping their eyes open.”

Drowsy driving is costly in both property damage and lives: 7 percent of all crashes have a link to drowsy driving; and 16–17 percent of fatal crashes are caused by a drowsy driver.

So, how will you keep yourself and your passengers, and those on the road with you, safe? Try this true/false quiz:

I can tell when I’m falling asleep

FALSE

Don’t feel bad if you got this one wrong. Most people surveyed—80 percent—said they could predict when they were about to fall asleep, but sleep is involuntary. Have you ever heard someone snoring only to have them declare, “I wasn’t asleep.” In a Foundation study of drivers who fell asleep and crashed, nearly half said they felt only “slightly drowsy” or “not at all drowsy” just before the crash.

Driving long distances makes you sleepy

FALSE

Only 21 percent of those who participated in the Foundation study reported they had been driving for three hours or more when they fell asleep at the wheel; 59 percent said they had been driving for less than an hour before falling asleep.

Drinking coffee cures drowsiness while driving

TRUE and FALSE

Caffeine can help you feel more alert, but it takes 15–20 minutes before it takes effect, lasts only a short time, and increases likelihood of “micro-sleeps”—4- or 5-second naps. Traveling at 65 mph, your two-ton vehicle will travel 476 feet, or about a tenth of a mile, in 5 seconds. Total stopping distance at that speed is 345 feet, giving you very little room for a potentially fatal error. “Increased exposure to micro-sleep episodes would be expected to increase a driver’s crash risk, especially if the micro-sleeps occur on changing terrain (e.g., curves) or when other vehicles or hazards are present,” per a 2005 scientific paper written by University of Iowa, Iowa City, researchers in the colleges of Engineering and Medicine, and Public Policy Center.

Tom Hess is Editor of EnCompass.