Stay Alert Driving at Night

Driving at night can be a fun way to enjoy festive holiday lights or tour a nocturnal cityscape, but most often it’s a task one accepts only out of necessity. For example, you may have to work night shifts at your job, return from a cross-country trip on time for work the next day, or pick up a friend from a late flight at the airport. If you’re feeling sleepy from a long day as you set out on your moonlit mission, you should consider taking certain steps to stay alert, such as engaging your mind through music or audiobooks, removing distracting and lulling conditions, and reducing eyestrain.


Preparing for the Drive

  1. Get a good night’s sleep before departure. Studies have shown that getting quality rest before departure serves as a much better countermeasure to drowsy driving than any steps you can take while already on the road.[1] Make sure you’re on a good sleep schedule before you’ll be night driving and, if possible, grab an additional nap before you get behind the wheel. This way you can stop the problem before it starts.
  2. Eat a healthy, hydrating meal. Eating a meal rich in whole grains, vegetables, and lean protein before you leave will help to get your trip off on the right track. Foods with lots of water in them are also good components, as hydration has been shown to help keep the body and brain awake.[2]
    • You can also pack some healthy snacks such as carrots, fruit, and nuts to take with you. These will provide natural doses of energy, and the act of chewing and the sensations on your tastebuds will also help combat drowsiness and tedium.
    • Though salty and sweet snacks such as chips and candy can be tempting, try to avoid them. The sugar high and salty satisfaction they offer are short-lived and can lead to an energy crash.[3]
  3. Avoid heavy, rich foods. There’s no reason you have to starve while driving at night, but be selective about the types of foods you consume while behind the wheel. Rich foods in large quantities such as fast food hamburgers or jumbo French fries present a shock to your body and require it to invest considerable energy into digesting it. This investment comes at the cost of the rest of your bodily and brain function, diverting energy it could be using to keep you alert into processing that heavy sandwich or milkshake.[4]
    • Some foods—for example, cheese, eggs, and turkey—also contain high doses of the soporific amino acid tryptophan, so be sure you know what’s in your food before you get behind the wheel!
  4. Take a driving buddy. Sometimes you have no choice but to drive alone at night, but you should recruit a ride-along buddy whenever possible. Recruiting a passenger won’t just give you someone to help with directions: it will also give you someone with whom to chat, laugh, and make observations and thus provide invaluable assistance in staying alert and engaged.[5]
    • Your car-bound co-pilot can also monitor your driving and help you decide if you need to pull over to rest or switch drivers.
  5. Check your medications. Studies have shown that depressants—alcohol and other drugs which slow your heart rate and function—affect safe driving more than any other factor. You might think this is obvious, but you also might not be aware that the medication your doctor has prescribed predisposes you to drowsiness. To be safe, check the ingredients and counter indications of your meds before you try driving at night.
    • You should ask your doctor to verify, but a good rule of thumb is that any blood pressure medications, benzodiazepines—for example, alprazolam, diazepam, and clonazepam—and antihistamines are likely to cause or exacerbate fatigue.[6]

Keeping Your Brain Active and Energized

  1. Consume caffeine in moderation. While you don’t want to rely on caffeine in order to stay awake and alert while driving, there’s nothing wrong with the odd cuppa to perk up your senses. After all, studies have shown that caffeine sharpens your brain function and focus for several hours after consumption. Just make sure you don’t overdo it–coffee is a diuretic, meaning you might be pulling over for bathroom breaks more often than you like if you have too much![7]
    • If coffee makes you jittery, try low-caffeine beverages such as soda or green tea.
  2. Listen to peppy music. Music with an accelerated beat has been shown to have an energizing effect which can override symptoms of fatigue.[8] It can also keep your mind occupied and stimulated, so consider putting your favorite CD or Pandora station on the next time you need to drive at night. Opt for old favorites to which you can sing along, as the act of singing makes your body release more endorphins.[9]
    • You don’t have to pump up the volume in order to pump up your energy. While loud music may help you get energized, it has been shown to affect driving performance adversely.[10]
    • Be sure not to fiddle with the song selection or volume while driving. Always wait until you are stopped in a safe place to make any adjustments to your playlist.
  3. Switch off the soothing music. Music can be a great way to stay alert and engaged, but you should consider the genre and beat of the music before switching it on. Slow ballads or soothing classical music can relax your body, lower your heart rate, and slow your breathing, effectively turning a potential stimulant into a soporific sonata.[11]
    • Similarly, avoid a podcast host or audiobook narrator whose voice strikes you as soft and calming. You can use them to relax during the day or fall asleep to at night, but putting them on in the car can be dangerously doze-inducing.
  4. Play a podcast or audiobook. If your mind wanders when you listen to music, try listening instead to a narrated audiobook, podcast, or radio news show. You might find that the narrative format requires you to follow along and stay more focused than music does. Pick a non-fiction subject or novel which you know you love and doesn’t take a long time to hook you in.[12]
    • For example, if you love to watch detective shows at home, buy an Agatha Christie audiobook or other suspenseful mystery. If you love history, download a podcast that discusses interesting historical topics, such as Stuff You Missed in History Class or The History Chicks.
  5. Pull over and take a brisk walk. If you find yourself getting drowsy in spite of your favorite music blasting on the stereo and plenty of coffee, you might want to pull over to a rest area, gas station, or parking lot. Getting out of the car and taking a brisk walk will get your heart rate up, get your leg muscles moving, and boost brain function. This can be particularly helpful if it’s cold outside, as cold temperatures act as a jolt to the system, spiking energy and alertness.[13]
    • If you’re on a long road trip, take a walk every time you stop for gas or bathroom breaks along the way.
  6. Roll down your windows. Feeling chilly and even shivering a bit can make you uncomfortable. This general discomfort has been shown to help keep your senses alert and poised at the ready, so blow some chilled, rejuvenating air onto your face and neck next time you start to feel cozily drowsy behind the wheel.[14] In addition to dousing yourself in some cool, night air, you can drink an ice cold beverage or sit on a cold compress.[15]
    • Just don’t count on these remedial measures having a long-term effect: they can help to refresh you, but they won’t solve your fatigue for hours at a time.[16]

Removing Distractions While Driving

  1. Don’t activate cruise control. Cruise control is a convenient feature offered on many automatic transmission vehicles, but you should only use it in the daytime when you’re not sleepy in the slightest. This automated feature creates what is called a reduced driver workload—that is, it allows you to pay less attention to the mechanisms and process of driving.[17] This reduced workload can mean that your mind wanders more easily and does a worse job driving than it would under normal, non-automated conditions.
    • The adverse effects of cruise control appear most frequently in male drivers under the age of 40, so be especially vigilant if you belong to this demographic.[18]
  2. Dim the dashboard lights. Bright dashboard lights can cause unnecessary eye strain when driving at night, which in turn can make you tired more quickly.[19] You can soften this glare by turning the dimmer switch—usually located near the headlight knob—down until the dashboard shine less brightly than outside traffic markers reflecting your headlights.
    • You can also adjust your outside mirrors so that they face downward in order to keep the direct glare of following vehicles’ headlights out of your eyes. It might seem counterintuitive, but it actually allows you to monitor overtaking vehicles from the reflection of their headlights on the pavement.
    • Also be sure to eliminate other light sources from within the vehicle. If your passenger must read or navigate, a flashlight or book light will be less distracting than the vehicle's dome light. All video screens should be in the back seat.[20]
  3. Don’t talk on the phone. It might seem like gabbing with a friend or catching up with a relative can be a good way to engage your mind and resist drowsiness. In fact, though, studies have shown that speaking on the phone—even if it’s a hands-free device—can interfere with driving performance. This is because you’re asking your brain to complete two tasks concurrently, and no one can do two things well at the same time.[21]

Noting Signs of Impaired Function

  1. Be aware of eye stress and yawning. Some of the most telling signs that you’re unfit to drive will manifest in your eyes and gestures. Switch up your alertness methods—for example, if you’re listening to audiobook, try switching to an amped-up CD or radio station—if you experience difficulty focusing, excessive blinking, or yawning. These symptoms indicate unsafe levels of fatigue and could lead to more serious issues more quickly than you realize.[22]
    • Detecting these early signs of exhaustion is particularly important because the next step of fatigue—characterized by memory lapses, disorientation, and slowed reactions—is already a dangerous state of impairment which causes thousands of traffic accidents every year.[23]
  2. Take a 15-20 minute nap if you notice drifting or other driving errors. If you catch yourself drifting into the median or shoulder, slamming on the brakes due to a delayed reaction, or missing a stop sign, you are already experiencing dangerous symptoms of over-tired driving. You may not have taken any drugs or alcohol, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t impaired. You should pull over immediately and try to take a cat nap to refresh your energy.[24]
    • If you still feel extremely sleepy after your cat nap, don’t try to force it and continue on the road. Quit while you’re ahead and get a good night’s sleep before resuming your drive.
  3. Know when to quit. There are times when even the utmost vigilance, quantities of caffeine, and other alertness tricks simply won't work. If you feel sleepy and strained in spite of all your attempts to perk yourself up, you need to throw in the towel and sleep. Find a hotel, motel, or rest area where you can sleep for a few hours before continuing your drive.[25]
    • If you’re going to stop somewhere, be sure to call a friend or family member to let them know exactly where you are and how long you plan to sleep. That way someone knows where you are and you won’t alarm anyone expecting your arrival.

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