Sleep Deprivation and Driving–What’s at Risk


February 10, 2023 4 MIN READ

Sleep Deprivation and Driving

Sleep Deprivation and Driving–What’s at Risk

What is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation is, simply put, when a person is deprived of an adequate amount of sleep. Though the definition of sleep deprivation is relatively simple, there’s nothing simple about the risks accompanying the issue. Before we can understand what sleep deprivation does to the body, we first need to know how we reach a sleep-deprived state, and why you should not be driving while in this state.

It’s not rare for you to encounter a person throughout your day that says they’re tired or didn’t sleep well the previous night. Maybe that person is often yourself. This is because sleep deprivation is a widespread issue that affects nearly 70 million people on any given day of the year in the U.S. alone. It would be difficult for you to find a single person who hasn’t experienced sleep deprivation at least once in their life. However, just because it’s so common doesn’t mean it’s any less serious.

To become sleep deprived, your body needs to lack the required amount of sleep necessary to keep things healthy and functioning. The amount of sleep needed varies based on age. The following are the average guidelines for daily sleep:

  • Children 12 months and under: 12-17 hours
  • Children 1-5 years: 10-14 hours
  • Children 6-12 years: 9-12 hours
  • Teens (13-18 years): 8-10 hours
  • Adults: 7-9 hours

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Whether a person isn’t finding enough time to lay down and sleep or their sleep isn’t of good quality, not getting the rest needed can wreak havoc on the body.

The Heart & Circulatory System 

Sleep is designed to help the body rest and recover. During the non-rapid eye movement sleep stages at night, your breathing evens out, your heart slows, and your blood pressure lowers. This relieves your heart from the stress it’s used to operating under throughout the day. During this time, your heart can rest and recover, preparing for the following day’s stress. Without this allowance for time off, your heart is forced to work under increasing strain until the damage is done continuously. This damage can be in the form of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or heart disease. People who experience a significant amount of sleep deprivation are also more likely to have a heart attack or a stroke.

The Brain & Nervous System

Like your heart, your brain needs a vacation to relax and recover. This vacation is supposed to come at night, during the most restful stages of sleep. Without this time, your brain can’t function at its best. You’ll soon experience issues focusing, diminished reaction times, and headaches. As deprivation worsens, you may experience problems like difficulty speaking or seeing clearly, hand tremors, poor judgment, and hallucinations.

Another part of your brain health that’s going to be affected by sleep deprivation is your mental health. The important yet difficult task of processing your feelings and managing mental illnesses like depression or anxiety amplifies when a lack of rest overloads your brain.

Most of these effects are dangerous to you, but the effects on the brain and nervous system are particularly dangerous to the world around you. The effect of sleep deprivation on the mind has been compared to the effect of alcohol, and the more sleep deprived you are, the drunker you are in your equivalence. This is why scientists compare the act of “driving drowsy” to driving drunk. In fact, studies have shown that drowsy driving is actually worse than drunk driving.

What is Drowsy Driving?

Just like sleep deprivation, the definition of drowsy driving is relatively self-explanatory or simple. It’s the act of sleeping when drowsy. However, like sleep deprivation, the risks of drowsy driving are far from simple.

Though drowsy driving can result from sleep deprivation, it’s important to note that it can also be caused by taking medication that can cause drowsiness.

The most obvious risk of drowsy driving is the possibility of falling asleep while driving. This often happens in the form of sleep, known as microsleep. This is when you fall asleep for 30 seconds or less. Some people refer to this as the act of “drifting off.”

What’s most scary about microsleep is that you might not even realize you’re experiencing these episodes. Have you ever felt startled by your head starting to fall forward or your body suddenly jerking to a more awake state? Have you ever found yourself blinking excessively or unable to stop yawning? Have you ever had a gap in time, even just a few seconds long, that you don’t recall happening or need information repeated because it didn’t make sense? These could all possibly be linked to microsleep episodes.

If you’re traveling 60 miles per hour, it only takes 1 second to drive 100 feet. To put this into perspective, 100 feet equates to the length of 7 average-sized vehicles, 3 school buses, or 10 stories in a building. That’s a lot of distance where something can go wrong, and that’s just the first second.

It’s not just falling asleep at the wheel that you need to worry about when combining sleep deprivation with driving. Another danger one faces is managing the brain side effects of sleep deprivation while trying to operate a vehicle in traffic.

If you remember from before, the brain can’t function at peak performance if it’s not appropriately rested. This leads to poor reaction times and difficulty focusing, two significant issues that make driving dangerous. If you’re having difficulty paying attention to the road or can’t react as quickly to a car cutting you off or an animal in the road, you’ll put yourself and the people around you at risk of an accident.

A study in 2017 showed a minimum of 91,000 crashes caused by drowsy driving, almost 800 deaths, and over 50,000 injuries as a result. It was noted that these statistics are underreported due to police reports not being able to cite drowsy driving as often as it occurs. The estimated yearly deaths due to drowsy driving are over 6,000.

Get Sleep, Save Lives

Not only will ensuring you receive the proper amount of restful sleep improve your health, possibly saving your life by reducing risks to your heart and brain, but it will also make you a safer driver for yourself and the other drivers on the road.

It’s easy to understand that sleep can make these differences, but it’s not as easy to get the rest your body desperately needs. You’ll need to try to identify the root of your sleeping issues by studying your sleep routine and looking at your risk factors. It’s recommended that you consult a professional to help you in this journey.

Check out our plan on how to get more sleep on our website.