Why caffeine helps truckers stay awake

September 17, 2020 5 min read

Caffeine and truckers

Truckers drive vehicles that weigh up to 80,000 pounds (36,287 kg) loaded. With such a big rig, it's vitally important that truckers remain alert while behind the wheel because a crash can be devastating for all involved.

One way to stay awake—a way that saves truckers' lives—is to take caffeine, but just in normal amounts.

Truckers see it all on the road: drivers in other vehicles nodding off, people high on drugs and alcohol, teens who just started driving, and older people who should not have their driver's license anymore.

And driving near truckers are people texting, putting on their makeup, and fiddling with the stereo or their cigarettes, to name a few distracted driving habits.

Drowsy Driving Kills

Obviously, the situation becomes a lot more treacherous if it's the trucker who gets drowsy because their vehicles are so large. It is vitally important that truckers find ways to stay alert the entire time they are on the road.

Drivers are three times more likely to crash if they are drowsy. Researchers say the risks of driving while drowsy are similar to driving while intoxicated. [8].

About 16.5 percent of crashes with fatalities involved fatigued drivers, according to the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety [1] That comes to more than 6,000 fatalities per year.

So fatigue and drowsiness, also known as tiredness, are a real concern. And it is especially a concern for truckers because they drive for such long periods and operate such huge vehicles.

Caffeine: Saving Truckers

But truckers have a way to help save their lives and the lives of others: caffeine. A 2013 study found that truckers who consume caffeine are 63% less likely to crash [1]. The American Association for the Advancement of Science writes:

Long distance commercial drivers who consume caffeinated substances such as coffee or energy drinks, to stay awake while driving, are significantly less likely to crash than those who do not, even though they drive longer distances and sleep less, finds a study published today on bmj.com.

Driving for extended periods in a sedentary position can increase drowsiness, but the British Medical Journal study found that caffeine can counteract the body's tendency to become fatigued.

But there was a caveat:

They do say, however, that the benefit is only useful for a short time and that having regular breaks, napping and appropriate work schedules are strongly recommended.

Don't take huge doses of caffeine

Another study says truckers who get too much caffeine crash even more than those who have just a normal amount. [7]

Dr. Ashleigh Filtness, a British researcher, led the study. She said :

This is a safety concern as sleepiness more than doubles the risk of being involved in a crash.

A common countermeasure is caffeine—used in various forms including drinks and pills—and as previous studies have shown it can have a positive impact on crash risk.

However, when it's consumed in high amounts over long periods it has the potential to impair sleep, and actually increase tiredness and safety risk.

Haulage companies and businesses looking to improve driver safety should take a holistic approach by finding ways to improve sleep and health together—simply recommend caffeine is not enough.

Get your usual dose of caffeine

Make sure you get at least your usual amount of caffeine before you set out. If you drink two cups of coffee every morning, then drink that much before you begin your trip. Getting less caffeine than you are accustomed to can result in drowsiness if you have caffeine dependence [2].

If you don't want to stop every hour to use the bathroom, avoid coffee or sodas. Instead, consider trying Viter Energy Mints [3], which have 40 mg of caffeine per mint. The mints freshen your breath and also contain energy-sustaining B vitamins.

You need a combination of methods to avoid drowsiness and stay awake. Experts give three key lifestyle practices to stay awake and alert on the road:

Good Sleep Habits

  • If you are awake for 16 hours or longer, your level of alertness decreases and propensity for drowsiness increases. [4]
  • If you get less than seven or eight hours of sleep per night, your ability to stay awake and alert is negatively impacted.
  • If you're on a long trip and you repeatedly get an hour less sleep than usual, it could add up to being less alert after several days.
  • Waking up a lot overnight also reduces alertness during the daytime.
  • You may be tempted to travel long into the night, but the body's clock is programmed to keep you awake and alert in the daytime.
  • Going 24 hours without sleep can make you as tired as if you had a blood alcohol content over the legal limit.

Good Eating Habits

  • Before you go on the road for the day or night, get a healthy meal high in protein and complex carbohydrates. Turkey and chicken are high in protein and have less fat and are therefore more healthy. Whole grains like brown rice and 100% whole wheat are good carbs. [5]
  • Avoid junk food, fast food, and foods high in sugar or highly processed carbs. You may get a quick energy boost from sugary or low-value carb foods in the short term, but you can experience a decrease or dip not long after.
  • Make sure you get plenty of water so you stay hydrated.
  • Get enough of vitamin C and the B vitamins.

Exercise

  • If you stop for a bathroom or meal break, walk for 5 or 10 minutes before you get back behind the wheel. It will stretch your legs, get your circulation moving, and refresh your mind.
  • Being in good physical condition can help keep you alert during the daytime and enhance the length and quality of your sleep at night. [6] Physical fitness also improves overall health, which can improve alertness and reduce fatigue.

These three areas, getting the right amount of sleep, a good diet, and adequate exercise, all improve overall health. When you are healthy, you may sleep better and experience less drowsiness. 

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine advises that if a driver is fatigued or drowsy, the only way to overcome it is to stop and get some sleep. Even a 20-minute nap can refresh you for a while.

This video explains in more detail how good sleep, diet, and exercise habits help you avoid drowsiness. 

 

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine lists three myths, practices that do not lessen drowsiness that people sometimes try: chewing gum, playing loud music, opening the window, or putting on the air conditioning.

Signs That You're Drowsy

Symptoms of drowsiness while driving include:

  • Difficulty keeping your eyes open or yawning frequently
  • Nodding off
  • Inability to remember the last few miles of the drive
  • Missing turns or signs
  • Trouble maintaining a constant speed
  • Drifting in and out of your lane

Remember, if you get too tired to continue driving, stop driving. Take a nap. Or get a good night's sleep. Truckers should rely on caffeine, short walks, and healthy eating to avoid drowsiness in the first place.

Sources

[1] https://www.nsc.org/road-safety/safety-topics/fatigued-driving
[2] https://www.goviter.com/blogs/viter-energy-blog/is-caffeine-addictive
[3] https://www.goviter.com/pages/viter-energy-mints
[4] https://youtu.be/oyLK-dd3sRg
[5] https://www.wikihow.com/Stay-Awake-when-Driving
[6] https://www.sleep.org/exercise-affects-sleep/
[7] https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-03-truck-drivers-high-caffeine-intake.html
[8] https://www.healthline.com/health/healthy-sleep/how-long-can-you-go-without-sleep
Mark Miller
Mark Miller



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