Driving for long distances can sometimes lead to difficulty staying awake and staying focused.  Boredom, the monotony of the highway, and the need to get from one place to another in as little time as possible can all lead to driving even while occasionally nodding off.

People who spend their careers driving across the country are at particular risk for driving when they are less than alert. This can come create several problems.

The Risks of Driving Drowsy

Commercial drivers are among the groups most likely to drive drowsy. Unfortunately, this can have fatal consequences: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that as many as 5,000 – 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be caused by a driver who is drowsy.

Of course, the driver doesn’t actually have to fall asleep in order to put themselves and others at risk.  Driving while sleepy can be likened to driving while drunk: after 24 hours awake, a person will experience impairment equal to a blood alcohol content of .10 percent. In nearly all states, BACs above .08 are illegal.

The Benefits of a Cup of Coffee

Drinking caffeinated beverages while on the road has its benefits. A new study reveals that long distance truckers who drink coffee and other caffeinated beverages are linked to a 63 percent lower crash risk than those who do not.

The reasons for this are simple: caffeine has a natural ability to improve alertness and concentration.  As a stimulant, it is able to remove the “morning fog” felt by many who are not yet completely awake.  However, there can always be too much of a good thing.

The Risks of Anti-Sleep and Caffeine Pills

The use of pills to help long distance drivers stay awake is so common that the term “trucker pills” was adopted. While ingesting these pills may seem like a good idea, they are not without their risk.

Too many stimulants can have an adverse effect on the body.  In large doses, they can cause nervousness, restlessness, stomach problems, nausea, heart palpitations, and problems breathing.  In extremely large doses, too many stimulants can cause seizures, convulsions, hallucinations, and even death.

For people who are on certain medications, or those who have underlying health conditions, any amount of stimulants may prove problematic.

No Substitute for Sleep

While caffeine and other stimulants may be a feasible option in moderation, there is simply no substitute for a good night’s sleep.

In fact, lack of sleep can hurt you in several ways (including ways that are not applicable to driving).  Not getting enough sleep can lead to irritableness, compromise of the immune system, headaches, anxiety, and even long term ailments like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. The best option is moderation: while it’s fine to ingest stimulants for a little pick me up behind the wheel, they shouldn’t be used as a means to avoid a good night’s rest.

Of course, drowsiness may still happen. If you’re nodding off, pull over and take a nap. Being late to a destination is better than being injured.

Timothy Friesland is a freelance writer who focuses on intermodal trucking, cars and car maintenance, public transportation, car mechanics and other related topics.