It was late afternoon, the weather was overcast and drizzly to the point it seemed like all colour had been bleached out of the day. I was on a long drive and I had already been driving for some time. I entered the motorway, there was not much traffic around when it happened…
I fell asleep. Literally. This was not a micro sleep whereby you nod off for a second before waking immediately back up and scaring yourself. I was on the motorway and asleep at the wheel, my car began to drift toward the hard shoulder, as it did, the tyres crossed a rumble strip and sent a loud vibrating noise crashing through the interior of the car. It woke me up immediately and scared me into leaving at the next exit to take a rest.  

“It takes 10,000 bolts to assemble a car, and one nut to scatter it all over the road”

While its hard to imagine ever falling asleep at the wheel, I guarantee, it will probably happen to you at some point, and it is happening to other drivers all over the country right now, maybe even the one on the other side of the road, coming toward YOU! Consider these scenario's:

Factors that lead to sleeping at the wheel:

1. Highway Hypnosis - This is perhaps the biggest cause of falling asleep. It happens when the environment you are driving through is so bland there is nothing to keep your senses occupied so your mind goes onto standby. Bland environments include:

  • Whiteouts - whereby snow blankets the surrounding environment.
  • Heavy rain - similar to snow, rain can also bleach the life out of the environment. The monotony of the rain pattering on your car can amplify the hypnotic effects of rain.
  • Motorways - Generally there is not much to occupy the mind when driving for many hours on a motorway. Just like the rain, the monotonous sounds of the wheels on the tarmac can add an extra hypnotic effect.

You may be asked to state how you would revive yourself when drowsy at the wheel on a motorway. Answers could include opening the air vents to let in fresh air (NOT winding down a window as this could add to the hypnotic sound of the motorway) Also leaving the motorway at the next exit (NOT stopping on the hard shoulder)

The first time you are driving and your mind snaps back to the present followed by the realisation you cannot recall anything of your journey for the last few minutes or so, you will now know you just experienced highway hypnosis.

2. Heavy meals - Taking on a carb heavy meal can make you drowsy (A common sight to see after Christmas dinner) What is happening here is that the resources of your body are being diverted from other non-essential areas (including your brain) in order to digest the complex carbs, hence drowsiness ensues. What's the message? don't destroy a full English at the next service station.

3. Seating position and Sunglasses - I lump these too odd bedfellows together because they lead to the same result. That result is mental fatigue on a long journey. Why? Well consider this:

  • Your seat is poorly positioned - this causes your muscles to constantly compensate at a micro level. 
  • Its a bright day and you forgot your cool shades - this causes you to squint at a conscious level, and your facial muscles to constantly strain at a micro level.

Both these situations lead to mental fatigue after a while, then your brain calls for a nap.

4. Ultradian rhythms - of the body that cycle between mental uptime (about one hour and thirty minutes) and information processing downtime (about thirty minutes) Bet you thought these cycles stopped when you woke up right? Wrong, they continue around the clock and you will know when you are in downtime when you find yourself struggling to focus or take information in)

There are more scenario's that will cause drowsiness, now its your turn to add them to the comments section :)

Factors to mitigate sleeping at the wheel:
  • Seating position – If someone else has been driving your vehicle you will almost definately need to make adjustments so your line of sight is correct for the road, your feet can reach the pedals comfortably and you can see the displays on your dashboard.
  • Headrest – should you need to brake rapidly during your journey (perhaps waking from a micro sleep), it is crucial your headrest is correctly positioned and aligned with the back of your head to cushion you against possible whiplash.
  • Plan for regular stops on a long journey and grab a coffee.
  • On a bright day make sure you are wearing your shades. And remember, if the sun is in the rear and not effecting you, then it will be dazzling those coming toward you.

Again, there are plenty of other things you can be doing and it would be great to see you adding them to the comments section. 

Despite taking every precaution, there are just some times when the inevitable is going to happen and you are going to end up in a collision. A colleague one shared a story with me about how he was driving down a two way road when an oncoming car drifted over to his side of the road. He held his cool expecting the other driver to correct his course, but he didn't. They ended up in a head-on collision at speed.

It later transpired that the other driver was speeding and on his way to hospital because he had learned his father had been taken critically ill, the driver also had other issues on his mind and he was so distracted his mind left the road completely.

Ensuring your driving position is optimal, (your mirrors are correctly set, you are wearing appropriate shoes etc.) may not prevent you falling asleep or avoid a developing hazardous situation, but they might enable you to react just a little bit faster when your turn comes around...



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