It’s well-known that driving while drunk or while texting can cause an automobile accident. But, there is another, more silent risk factor that slows down reaction time just as much, if not more: drowsy driving.

“Most people know [the danger involved] when they’ve had a little too much to drink and then drive,” says Phil Konstantin of San Diego, Calif., who served on the California Highway Patrol for 20 years. “But almost every single driver is likely to drive [drowsy] at one time. Yes, it happens at night on the highway, but it also happens in the middle of the day on a small road in town.”

In a study released in November 2010, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 41 percent of drivers admitted to falling asleep or nodding off while driving at some point in their lives. More than one in four drivers admitted to driving when they were “so sleepy that [they] had a hard time keeping [their] eyes open” at least once in the month before the survey was conducted.  

In a report published last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that drowsy driving was involved in 2.2 to 2.6 percent of all fatal crashes nationwide each year during the period of 2005 through 2009. In 2009, drowsy driving was involved in 832, or 2.5 percent, of fatal crashes in the United States.   

Tragic consequences

Konstantin knows far too much about the topic, both professionally and personally. As a public affairs officer for the California Highway Patrol, Konstantin gave talks on public safety and driving. One of the topics he discussed was drowsy driving. So it was especially heartbreaking when his wife, Robyn, was killed in a drowsy driving incident on April 6, 1999.

“She was a good driver, used to long distance and had heard all about safe driving from me,” says Konstantin. Nevertheless, she died in the middle of the night on a long stretch of road in Texas when she fell asleep, woke up and crashed into a guardrail that crushed her inside the car. 

Robyn was a mile and a half past a rest stop when she crashed. Konstantin wishes she had stopped there; it could’ve saved her life.

In 2005, Konstantin successfully petitioned the California State Senate and the California State Assembly to have April 6 declared Drowsy Driving Awareness Day to educate other drivers on when to get off the road. 

Warning signs

If your eyes are closing or losing focus, if staying in your lane is challenging, if you miss exits or turns, if you can’t remember where you’ve been or when the song changed, you may have already nodded off. At that point, it’s time to get off the road. The highway is especially dangerous because of the speed limit. 

“At 65 miles an hour, you are covering 100 feet a second,” says Konstantin. “Two seconds means the length of two football fields, and that’s a lot of opportunities for something to go wrong.” 


Monotonous highway driving can have a hypnotic effect, so switch off driving every two hours and take frequent breaks. Avoid driving after taking any medication that advises against the use of heavy machinery because that description includes your car. Make sure you get the proper amount of sleep before long trips, and check your energy level before short ones.

If you find yourself guilty of drowsy driving, pull off the road at the first safe and legal opportunity.

A 20-minute nap can help revive you. If you can’t take a nap, exit the car, stretch your muscles and walk around for a few minutes. If it’s impossible to stop quickly, try chewing gum, turning on cold air, drinking caffeine or listening to talk radio. Any of these activities can help revive you for very short periods of time.

But, remember: the only way to guarantee your safety and that of everyone else in the road is to stop driving the car.

Have other ideas for how to combat drowsy driving? Leave us a note in the comments below.

More road safety stories from MNN and partners: