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How can I stop falling asleep when driving?

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At the risk of sounding like one of those 'hangover cure' articles that just tells you not to drink too much in the first place, let's make one thing clear from the start: if you need to ask 'how to stop falling asleep when driving,' then you probably need to pull over and take a nap.

Aside from the obvious danger of actually falling asleep at the wheel (a big no-no), driving while tired comes with a whole host of risks, including loss of concentration, slower reaction times, increased risk-taking and irritability.

It can, without a doubt, be a recipe for disaster.

But that doesn't mean that once in a while we don't all do it. Whether it's driving home from a three-day festival or powering through the night to reach someone we love, there are few people out there that can honestly say they've never been tired and in charge of a vehicle.

In fact, many people find themselves overwhelmingly tired just driving to work, or simply because they've spent too long on the road in one go.

Taking simple precautions such as scheduling regular fresh-air breaks, eating wisely during your journey and carrying a (preferably chatty) passenger can all help to stop you falling asleep when driving. If possible, it's also wise to get a good night's sleep the day before your long drive and take a nap just before setting off.

So, what else can you do to help yourself stay awake on the road? Let's find out.

Does caffeine really help?

The first thing most people think of when they need a shot of energy is caffeine; theoretically, if a cup of coffee can shake the sleep out of us first thing in the morning, then it should be able to do the same any time of day.

Alternatively, some people prefer to go even harder and grab a highly caffeinated energy drink, such as Red Bull.

The good news is that in the short term caffeine can help to boost energy and increase awareness, so it can be a useful quick fix when you're trying to stop yourself falling asleep while driving.

The bad news is that this only really works once or twice, takes 30 minutes to kick in and once the caffeine wears off, you're actually liable to become more tired and jittery.

Even worse, if you're already a six-espresso-a-day kind of soul then it's likely to prove less effective, because the more caffeine you drink the more your body gets used to it and the less powerful it becomes.

In other words, yes caffeine can help you to stay awake on the road, but it's absolutely not a long term strategy.

Coffee, keys and mobile phone on a brown surface
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Take regular breaks

Drivers from the UK will no doubt be familiar with the 'Tiredness can kill, take a break' signs that line the the sides of British motorways, and the truth is, they're there for a reason.

Taking regular breaks has been proven time and time again to improve concentration and alertness, and in doing so, reduce the likelihood of you having an accident.

The importance of fresh air

We'll reiterate the point again that when you're extremely tired, there is no break like a nap break, but that doesn't mean that simply getting out of the car for some fresh air can't be helpful in itself.

Regardless of how tired or full of beans you are when you start driving, if you're making a long journey then it is recommended that you should be stopping roughly every two hours.

Don't wait until you're already on the cusp of falling asleep to take your breaks either -as soon as you notice yourself getting tired, you should pull over somewhere safe and get out to stretch your legs. The movement combined with the fresh air should help to energise you and get the blood flowing once more.

In the meantime open a window, even if it's cold outside, as the fresh air should perk you up and help to blow out any cobwebs.

Napping

We all love a good nap on a lazy Sunday afternoon, but when you've got somewhere to be then needing some shut-eye can suddenly seem more like an inconvenience than an exciting prospect.

However, even a nap of 15-20 minutes can be beneficial and stop you nodding off further down the road. And at the end of the day, getting there 15 minutes late is far better than not getting there at all.

Do remember that many service stations have maximum stay periods of two hours, so it's probably not a wise idea to stay all night.

Top tip: Take a blanket or sleeping bag with you - although being asleep in your car is not directly a criminal offence in pretty much any country, having the engine on while napping, even if it's just to keep the heating running, will not be looked upon favourably.

Use distraction techniques to stop you falling asleep while driving

Take a passenger

One of the best techniques for staying awake while driving is to have someone with you to keep you company - and to make sure they're awake too.

Having someone to chat with, play car games with, occasionally even belt out a good 80s tune with, will help to keep you alert and in the zone. If they can drive too so you can take it in shifts, even better. If not, then at least they're there to call you out when standards start to slip.

If you're flying solo, you can still get a similar mental boost by calling a friend or family member for a quick catch up. If you're taking this approach be sure to check the mobile usage regulations of the country you're driving as they can vary greatly; in France, for example, it's illegal to use any kind of hands-free device that requires a headset.

Music and audiobooks

Forget the unusual routes or the epic views, it's sometimes the ultimate driving playlist that puts the real heart into a good road trip.

There's a certain unbeatable feeling of freedom that comes from blasting along an open road with the wind in your hair and a good beat filling your ears.

But music isn't just good for your mood; it's great for keeping you awake and alert too. With that in mind, stick on some Abba, some death metal, some gangster rap, or whatever takes your fancy, and sing along like you're having the shower of your life. Maybe steer clear of the sleep-inducing classical symphonies though.

Despite many people actually using them to fall asleep to, audiobooks are another good choice as they really give you something to sink your teeth into. For maximum alertness, choose non-fiction books that will challenge your expectations, rather than soothing fairy stories.

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Avoid things that make you drowsy

Eating for the drive

Not exactly known for their healthy options, it's easy to grab the first thing that catches your eye when you arrive at a motorway service station - indeed, many of us use a long ride as an excuse to pig out on 'journey snacks' (read: sugary rubbish).

But when and what you eat can have a huge impact on how awake you feel for the rest of the journey, and while you need food to keep your brain functioning properly, overly big meals before or while driving will make you sleepy.

The more sluggish your food choices, the more sluggish you'll feel. Foods heavy in sugar will give your immediate energy levels a boost but lead your sugar levels to crash in the long run; instead choose proteins, fruit and veg and slow-releasing complex carbs.

Heating

As we said before, fresh air can perk you right up when you're on the road for a long time - and unsurprisingly, heating can have the exact opposite effect.

Although we'd never recommend spending your whole drive shivering, letting it get too warm in your car won't help you to avoid falling asleep while driving.

Plan your journey wisely

As with almost anything in life, fortune favours the well-prepared and there are certainly things that you can do before you even set off in order to minimise your chances of falling asleep while driving.

Get a good night's sleep

If you know you're going on a long drive, then try to get a good night's sleep the night before - that means early to bed, no getting lost in the depths of Instagram while you're supposed to be kipping, and no late-night cheese feasts.

When to leave

If you've got a long drive ahead of you, then it's best to try and time it for when you're not usually asleep. Although driving through the night might seem like a great way to skip the traffic and speed your journey up overall, your body clock probably won't agree and you'll put yourself more at risk in the long run.

Stick to main roads

Plan your journey so that you stick to busier, well-lit, rumble-stripped roads, if possible. While driving down the back-roads where it's quieter may seem like a good idea in terms of avoiding other people, having some kind of buzz around you, as well as these extra safety precautions, will serve you well.

So there we have it, proof that there are ways to stay awake on the road, even when you could really do with some shut-eye. We'll say it once more though: there really is no match for a good night's sleep.