How truck drivers stay awake on long overnight drives

by Mark Miller April 21, 2016 4 min read

How truck drivers stay awake on long overnight drives

Truckers and others often drive long distances at night. Experts advise against this, saying you should not be driving from midnight to 6 a.m., when drowsiness is most likely to strike. (Wikimedia Commons photoby Wjmoore17)

We wanted to know how to stay awake on long overnight drives. Who would know better than a truck driver?

First we should say that experts on sleep say you should not be driving from midnight to 6 a.m., when you are more likely to become drowsy. Drowsiness is a major cause of automobile accidents.

Brett Aquila, a trucker with 15 years on the road when he founded his website Trucking Truth in 2007, has some solid advice in an article he titled “12 Tips to Help Drivers Stay Awake Longer.”

Like the National Sleep Foundation, Aquila advises taking a short nap during your trip. Aquila and the NSF both also advise getting a good stretch of sleep before setting out—seven to eight hours.

Take a nap before you take off

After the heading advising long-distance drivers to Take A Walk or Get Some Exercise is Aquila’s section Take A Nap that says:

Ok so you don’t feel like taking a walk. Then how about a thirty minute nap? Yeah I dig that idea myself. It’s amazing what an incredible difference a short nap can make. One or two short naps each day can really help keep you awake and alert for a lot longer.

Aquila has some seemingly contradictory advice. Some subheads, arranged in a funny way on his blog, state:

Avoid Large Doses of Caffeine

Get a Cup of Coffee!

Avoid Large Portions of Food

Get Something To Eat!

Turn Off The Radios

Turn Your Radio Back On!

The message is: Mix it up.

He also advises keeping the temperature cool or even chilly. He writes:

We sleep best when we’re warm and comfortable. I’ve found it’s nice in the winter cranking up the cab temperature to about 80 just to get rid of the chill in my bones. But it also makes you sleepy. Turn down the temperature in the cab. Make it pretty cool, borderline chilly at times. That will keep you a little more alert.

Pull over if you’re tired

Aquila says if you’re too tired to continue, get some sleep.

If you keep pushing on when you’re already tired you know you’re doing something incredibly dangerous. You need sleep. But I’ve also noticed that if I wait until I’m exhausted to get some sleep I don’t recover nearly as well as I do when I take more frequent naps or go to bed sooner. When you start feeling tired try to squeeze in a quick nap or go to bed early for the night. The more exhausted you are when you finally get some sleep the less alert you’re going to feel when you get up.

The National Sleep Foundation, which is directed and staffed by doctors and other health professionals, begins its article titled How To Stay Awake on the Road: Tips To Combat Drowsy Driving with advice on how to know when you’re too tired to continue and need to pull over. These tips are below here verbatim:

  • Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, or heavy eyelids
  • Daydreaming; wandering/disconnected thoughts
  • Trouble remembering the last few miles driven; missing exits or traffic signs
  • Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes
  • Trouble keeping your head up
  • Drifting from your lane, tailgating, or hitting a shoulder rumble strip
  • Feeling restless and irritable

A good stretch of sleep

The foundation advises that the best way to prepare for an overnight drive is to get seven to eight hours of sleep before departure.

The National Sleep Foundation advises you take a nap before the drive if you missed some sleep. If you become drowsy but are not as far as you wanted to go before stopping for a long sleep, consider taking a short nap of about 20 minutes. Stop in a safe location. Be aware that you will probably be groggy for about 15 minutes after the nap, so wait a bit before setting off on the highway again.

The foundation also advises:

  • Driving with a partner on long trips and switch drivers every two hours or so. While the person is not driving, he can take the opportunity to have a nap, which saves time on a long trip.
  • Never drink alcohol. “Even very small amounts of alcohol will enhance drowsiness,” the article states.
  • While the title of this blog posting is How to stay awake on long overnight drives,the foundation says you shouldn’t drive between midnight and 6 a.m.—the time when sleepiness is most intense.
  • Take caffeine, whether in coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks or candy. If you have a buddy, you might want to lay off the fluid caffeine and take it in solid form so you don’t have to pull over for bathroom breaks every hour. If you’re driving alone, you may want to stop frequently and stretch your legs more.

Driving drowsy is dangerous

The National Sleep Foundation explains why driving drowsy is dangerous:

Well before a person actually falls asleep while driving, lapses in attention and slowed reaction times make drowsy driving very dangerous. Driving is a complex activity that involves many small but important split decisions with every passing second. Even if you’re awake, your brain is not functioning optimally to handle these decisions. Studies show that excessive sleepiness decreases our judgment and increases risk taking.

Turning up the radio and rolling gown the window don’t work to keep a drowsy person awake, the foundation states.

The American Automobile Association advises driving when you’re normally awake. If your normal waking hours are from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., you should drive during those hours. Take a break every 100 miles or every two hours, and don’t work all day and then drive all night.

The one take away from all these websites and article is summed up in this advice from the AAA: “Stop driving if you become sleepy; someone who is tired could fall asleep at any time – fatigue impacts reaction time, judgment and vision, causing people who are very sleepy to behave in similar ways to those who are drunk.”

Mark Miller
Mark Miller


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