How do you stay awake on a road trip?

October 01, 2020 4 min read

Road trip

As you travel this old world's highways and byways in your automobile, remember this: Driving while drowsy kills thousands of drivers and passengers worldwide every year.

The U.S. government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [9] estimates from police and hospital reports in 2017 that there were 91,000 crashes involving drowsy drivers in the United States:

These crashes led to an estimated 50,000 people injured and nearly 800 deaths. But there is broad agreement across the traffic safety, sleep science, and public health communities that this is an underestimate of the impact of drowsy driving. 

Experts advise several ways to ensure you remain awake and alert on the road, but most agree: If you get drowsy, the best thing to do is to pull over and let someone else drive, or if you're alone take a nap. Many sleep advisors say you should also take a nap before you set out on your trip.

Practices to stay awake

As we've been writing on this blog lately, there are long-term [1] and short-term [2] practices to remain alert and avoid becoming drowsy on the road.

The long-term practices are to get a good, healthy diet; sleep on a regular schedule, at least 7 hours a night (or day, if you work the graveyard shift); and exercise regularly to stay physically fit.

The short-term practices are more detailed. And we can all take hints from truck drivers, who are experts in driving long distances and staying awake.

Underlying both the short-term and long-term practices is judicious use of caffeine. If you rely too much on caffeine and get too much of it, one study finds [3], you run the risk of crashing. For truckers who get a good, healthy amount of caffeine, another study found [4], they can avoid crashes and save lives.

Caffeinated mints with B vitamins

Driving long distances can be a balancing act between limiting pit stops and putting the miles behind you on the one hand; and staying safe, going to the bathroom and taking breaks often enough, and getting meals on the other.

One way to limit pit stops is to take your caffeine in a dry preparation, such as Viter Energy Mints [5]. If you eat the mints, you will avoid taking too much liquid so you can limit pit stops, which is important because medical professionals say part of staying alert is to get enough fluids and stay hydrated. If you have the mints, you can drink water.

You get 40 mg of caffeine in each Viter Energy mint [10], you freshen your breath, and you get the B vitamins that some researchers say will help keep you alert and awake if you have a deficiency in them [6].

It hasn't been proven that B vitamins boost your energy if you get enough in your diet, but it doesn't hurt to take them in a supplement. It also hasn't been proven that they do not boost your energy.

Playing games, conversing

While we can all take some hints from truck drivers, families or couples have a distinct advantage over truckers. Families can converse, play games, and take turns driving.

Also, recreational road trippers don't have to log the typical 500 miles in a day that truckers average.

Speaking of games, the Thought Catalog website has a posting [7] with a list of 31 games you can play in the car (or anywhere) without boards or equipment. Some of my favorites, as written on Thought Catalog, are:

  • 1. Categories. One person picks a category (ex: Britney Spear’s songs, NFL teams, flavors of La Croix) and everyone takes turns naming something in that category until someone (the loser) is stumped.

  • 10. Would You Rather. Play an epic game of Would You Rather. Try to stump the other person with the weirdest or most difficult questions you can come up with (or find online).

  • 16. Celebrity. One person plays the character of a famous person and answers questions as if they were that person. Whoever guesses correctly first wins. 

  • 22. People Watching. Find a vehicle that you can watch for a few minutes traveling on the road near you. Make up a story about the people in the car. What are their names? What do they do for employment? What kind of pets do they have? The sillier and more detailed the story, the better.

Listen to a podcast or audiobook

If you don't have a passel of kids in the car, you can keep your mind occupied with an interesting podcast or audiobook. You can find podcasts on darn near anything—ghostbusting, food, feminism, sports, popular culture, high-brow culture, Vikings, textile arts, and on and on.

Never drink or take drugs and drive

Drugs and alcohol are killers when it comes to driving. Intoxicants slow reaction times, cloud driving judgment, and cause people to pass out or nod off. Experts caution against drinking heavily the night before you set out, too, not just the day or night of the drive.

Sound advice on when to pull over

Here's some sage advice from Schneider trucking [8]: "If you have to ask yourself how to stay awake when driving, you shouldn't be driving. Get rest when your body needs it."

That blog at Schneider has 12 tips on how to stay awake on the road, none of which include tricks that experts say don't work, like making the cab too cold, turning up the music real loud, or chewing gum.


Mark Miller
Mark Miller

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