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Staying Alert on the Road after Work

Learn how to get the sleep you need when you work non-traditional hours

If you work early mornings, late nights, or alternating shifts, you have a higher chance of drowsy driving. When you’re sleep-deprived, your motor functions and reaction time are impaired, which can raise your chances of getting into a crash.

Long shifts and variable schedules work against our body’s natural sleep and wake rhythms, making it more difficult to get the sleep we need to be alert when driving.

Driving when you’re sleep-deprived is very risky. It causes hundreds of thousands of car crashes each year and an estimated 6,400 of those are fatal. Yet, an alarming number of drivers admit to driving while drowsy. In fact, recent data from the National Sleep Foundation shows 6 in 10 Americans say they have driven when they were so tired that they had a hard time keeping their eyes open.

Recognize the signs that you might be too tired to drive.

While you may not be able to control your work schedule, you can learn how to identify the signs that you may be too tired to drive.

If you notice any of the following signs, it might be time to pull over to a safe spot for a nap, drink a caffeinated beverage, or switch drivers if possible.

  • Yawning often
  • Difficulty keeping eyes open or rubbing your eyes
  • Having trouble remembering the last several miles you’ve driven
  • Missing an exit or not following a street sign or traffic signal
  • Drifting into another lane or shoulder
  • Hitting a rumble strip

How to get the sleep you need

The best way to prevent drowsy driving is to get the sleep you need to be alert and drive when you feel refreshed. For individuals who work night shifts, rotating shifts, or extended shifts, getting adequate sleep can be extra challenging, but by following these tips, you can get the sleep you need:

  • Install light blocking curtains. We recommend making sure that your bedroom is as dark as possible. A dark room tells your body that it’s time to sleep and if you have to sleep when the sun is up, blackout curtains are a great solution. Blackout curtains and blinds can reduce light pollution and remove outside light, creating a dark environment that’s primed for sleep
  • Wear sunglasses. If you leave work in the bright morning or afternoon light, put on a pair of sunglasses before you walk outside. Sunlight suppresses melatonin production. The more sunlight exposure you have after you leave work, the more difficult it could be to go to sleep when you get home
  • Turn on a sound machine. Sound machines can help create an optimal sleep-friendly environment by reducing external noises that interfere with your sleep. This can be particularly helpful to shift workers who are trying to sleep when their family members, roommates, and neighbors are awake and making noise as they go about their day
  • Eat at consistent mealtimes. NSF’s 2022 Sleep in America®Poll shows that having consistent mealtimes is significantly associated with healthier sleep. Among those surveyed, people who said they eat their meals at the same time every day had better sleep health than those with more inconsistent meal schedules
  • Skip the caffeine. Leading up to your scheduled bedtime, only consume caffeine if needed to help you drive safely. Too much caffeine intake stimulates your brain and body and could keep you awake when you really need to get some rest. Be aware that caffeine can be hidden in other foods as well, such as chocolate and even ice cream, so check the ingredients
  • Get exposure to light when you wake up. While dim, dark environments help you go to sleep, bright, natural light helps tell your body to wake up. By getting exposure to sunlight when you need to be awake, it will also help your body feel sleepy later if you go to sleep in a dark room. If you’re waking in the dark to go to work, there are lamps and lighting options you can use to simulate daylight
  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Even on your days off, don’t flip back and forth with your sleep schedule. Sticking to your workday sleep routine helps your body get acclimated to your scheduled sleep times

If you work night, rotating, or extended shifts, your body’s natural sleep and wake rhythms and work schedule aren’t aligned. This can make getting an adequate amount of quality sleep more difficult. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to ensure that you have enough sleep and reduce your chances of a crash if you feel drowsy when you’re on the road.