Sunday September 23rd 2018

Putting the brakes on drowsy driving

Shift work and long hours are associated with reduced time for sleep and can have a negative impact on the health and safety of nurses. Effects may include fatigue, increased stress, depression, and physiological dysfunction that can lead to injuries and illnesses.

Automobile crashes are one potentially deadly effect of work-related fatigue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 100,000 automobile crashes occur each year as a result of drowsy drivers. This leads to an estimated 1,550 deaths and 71,000 injuries. NHTSA lists shift workers, especially those working nights or irregular hours, as one of the groups at highest risk for drowsy-driving crashes.

According to ANA’s 2011 Health and Safety Survey, about one in 10 nurses surveyed were involved in an automobile accident that they believe was related to fatigue from shift work. Moving forward, nurses must take action to protect themselves and others from the dangers of drowsy driving.

Recognizing warning signs and taking action

There are many steps nurses can take to prevent automobile crashes related to drowsy driving. First, it is important to recognize warning signs that indicate that it is unsafe to be driving. Warning signs include the following:

• Frequent blinking, a feeling of heavy eyelids, or difficulty focusing while driving.

• Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes; trouble keeping your head up.

• Feeling restless and irritable.

• Daydreaming or having disconnected thoughts.

• Difficulty remembering the last few miles driven.

• Missing exits or failing to see traffic signs.

• Drifting from the lane or driving onto a rumble strip on the shoulder of the road.

If any of these warning signs are present, immediate action should be taken before driving can be safely resumed. It may be necessary to stop in a safe area, lock the car, and sleep for 15 to 20 minutes. Consuming caffeine can be helpful as well. It may be useful to keep caffeine gum or caffeinated beverages in the car. It is important to remember that caffeine takes about 30 minutes to increase alertness. For an added boost, consume caffeine then take a short nap to get the benefits from both. Driving can be resumed if alertness is adequately restored. But remember this is a temporary aid and not a replacement for getting adequate sleep.

Ideally, however, steps should be taken to prevent drowsy driving before getting into a vehicle.  The best solution is to get enough sleep every day so that sleepiness does not occur during the commute. If sleepiness does occur, the safest strategy is to avoid driving altogether by taking public transportation or arranging for a ride from a family member or friend.

Resources from NIOSH

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has developed a continuing education program to help nurses deal with the challenges of shift work and long hours. The program includes 11 online modules, one of which focuses on drowsy driving. Other topics include the physiology of sleep and fatigue, ways to improve the quality of sleep, the science of napping, scheduling strategies for managers, and a variety of other coping strategies for staff nurses and nurse managers.

The program is expected to launch this summer and will be free to anyone. Visit, and for more information.

— Jaime Dawson is the senior policy analyst in the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health.

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