It is common knowledge no matter what vehicle you drive that driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs is a massive safety hazard that can result in injury or death. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has even established the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse, a database of such violations to discourage the practice. But there is another issue that greatly impairs driving ability that should be taken just as seriously as alcohol intake: sleep deprivation.
Alcohol Versus Sleep Deprivation
How much does going without a good night’s rest impact important trucker skills such as reaction time and memory? Scientists from Occupational & Environmental Medicine conducted an experiment to find out the comparison of sleep deprivation and alcohol. Their results were surprising.
Everyone has different genetic code, and that means the rate at which a lack of sleep impacts us varies from person to person. However, of the people they tested (75% of which worked in the transportation industry), even the most sleep-resistant subjects performed at a BAC equivalent of .05% after 19 hours of sleep deprivation, and everyone performed at a BAC equivalent of .1% after 20 hours of sleep deprivation.
It seems the effects of foregoing bedtime compound over time. The first twelve hours of driving after a quality night of sleep is fairly smooth, but driving at the end of the day, when the driver has been awake for seventeen, eighteen, or nineteen hours, the effects can be catastrophic.
Truckers have a responsibility to drive at peak performance. It is enough that people drive sleep-deprived while operating a 4-wheel sedan, imagine the damage that can be done with a gross vehicle weight rating of 80,000 pounds.
It is paramount that you drive at your best; here are some guidelines to help.
Drive at the Beginning, not the End
Based on the information from the study we discussed earlier, this is a given. If driving your route is the last thing you do before you end your day that means you drive when you are at your most tired. Reduce your chances of an accident by doing non-driving tasks at the end of your day, rather than the start.
It is easy to just say that avoiding caffeine will help you sleep better, but do you know how much impact caffeine has on your mind?
Caffeine, like sleep deprivation, affects people to differing degrees based on genetic makeup. But generally, your body flushes caffeine out of your system at a rate of 9.4% each hour. This means ingested caffeine takes seven hours to halve in your body. Two cups of coffee drunk at 3 PM is comparable to drinking one cup of coffee at 10 PM.
If you are a coffee junkie and drink four cups of coffee with your breakfast, your chances of sleeping well are approximately as likely as if you drank two-thirds of a cup of coffee eighteen hours later.
Again, people metabolize/process caffeine differently, so you may need to experiment to see what caffeine intake at what time still allows you to sleep well. What matters is you find your drinking deadline and stick with it. Have a caffeinated soda while eating lunch, but avoid having one with dinner!
Taking caffeine is never a suitable substitute for sleep, and should not be relied upon as such.
Perhaps you drink alcohol after a job well done to help you relax before you sleep. While drinking alcohol might make you fall asleep faster, it often ruins the quality of the sleep you get. The National Sleep Foundation says that alcohol intake is linked with less REM sleep, the stage that contributes most to long-term mental clarity.
This is not to say that you should avoid alcohol at night like you would caffeine, but moderation when you still have work to do tomorrow is vital for focusing.
Not content with ruining drinking coffee, soda, and alcohol, TopMark Funding has another suggestion of avoidance: blue light on your computer screens. The brain associates blue light with daytime (most likely from the color of the sky, but this is conjecture), reducing the production of melatonin and making sleep harder than it needs to be.
Less blue light does not have to mean cutting out screen time before bed: there are applications such as f.lux that can lower the amount of blue light your screens project, and there are glasses that filter out blue light for more public spaces such as watching a movie.
Melatonin (and other sleep supplements)
If you are worried about less melatonin production from blue light, a simple solution might be to just take a sleeping pill to help offset it, right?
Taking such medicines might help you fall and/or stay asleep, but they can create a whole new problem at the backend. It is time to get up and start driving but melatonin or other supplements are still in your system, making you feel groggy and unfulfilled at least for the first few hours after waking up. Additionally, your body might develop a dependency, producing less melatonin naturally because it expects to obtain some help externally.
Working out might seem like a fantastic idea to help fall asleep at night, but there are caveats. When you exercise, your body pumps hormones such as adrenaline into your system, which causes your body to stay alert, long after the exercise is over. Exercise earlier, or with less intensity, to reduce this effect.
You owe it to yourself and everyone else on the road to not drive drunk, so why would you drive sleep deprived when the effects can be parallel?
To improve your sleep, consider taking baby steps and tracking improvement.
The latest hour that you had soda, coffee, or other forms of caffeine? Try pushing an hour back and seeing how you feel better with less caffeine in your system. Exercising causing your body to stay alert in bed? Try exercising sooner in the day so you have more time to adjust for bedtime.
The FMCSA Clearinghouse does not currently monitor sleep deprivation issues, but if the problem continues to rear its ugly head, it may only be a matter of time before they perform some enforcement to reduce the issue.
Take a proactive stance to reduce your BAC-equivalent on the road, and remember to always drive safely.
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