What’s the Best Way to Stay Awake When Driving?

The dos and don'ts of driving straight from a sleep medicine expert
tired driver drinks coffee

We’ve all felt drowsy behind the wheel from time to time. But it’s incredibly dangerous.  Preventing it from happening is obviously very important for your safety and everyone sharing the road.

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While we may think there are tried and true ways to keep ourselves awake on the road, preventing the grogginess from ever happening is best.

Why the things we keep trying don’t work

Some common tactics people rely on to stay awake behind the wheel include talking on the phone, blasting the radio, eating candy or snacks, or rolling down the windows to let a gust of air in.

Some may resort to slapping or pinching themselves.

But if you’re drowsy, unfortunately none of these techniques will make you more alert. Especially because they happen after the sleepiness has already set in.

According to sleep medicine specialist Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, DO, MS, more than a century of sleep deprivation research shows that humans can’t recognize severe sleepiness adequately under sleep-deprived conditions.

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That means being prepared before you head out instead of doing the things you’ve already tried.

The problem with eating while driving

If you stock your car with gas-station foods like crackers or candy during your travels, the carbs and sugar will likely cause you to sugar or carb crash.

“Once they metabolize and the sugar spike in your bloodstream wears off, drowsiness can increase even more,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says. “This only adds to the problem.”

Slapping and pinching yourself don’t work

Despite the desperate attempts, hitting or pinching yourself only causes some annoying physical pain and does little to awaken the part of your brain that needs to be stimulated back into being alert.

What to do to stay awake while driving

Here are some solutions that are more likely to prevent you from dozing off in the first place or can help if you’re aware enough to react.

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  • Drink a cup of coffee (since caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant). Try using less sugar so you don’t crash once it wears off.
  • Pull over somewhere safe as soon as you can and take a 20-minute nap to refresh your alertness level.
  • Be preventive before you get behind the wheel by doing a 20-minute workout before leaving the house. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and can lower your level of stress hormones. These can keep you more alert while driving.

Talk with your doctor, make some lifestyle changes

“Of course, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and eating healthy on a regular basis is always the best way to increase your energy level overall and prevent grogginess, dependency on caffeine, or carb and sugar cravings in the first place,” she says. “Especially when you’re driving.”

According to Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer if you regularly have trouble nodding off on the road you should see a sleep specialist to make sure it’s not a form of a more serious medical condition. 

“You should also consider making lifestyle choices if you’re able to,” she says. “Riding a bike, taking public or rideshare transportation, or investing in a car that has visual, audio or vibrating alerts if your car begins to drift off are all great ways to keep yourself safer on the road.”

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