The Best Advice

August 13, 2010 at 2:07 am (By Amba)

The single best protective amulet you can give someone leaving on a long drive is this warning/reminder:

If you get sleepy, DON’T try to fight it.  Pull off the road as soon as you can and take a nap.

I realized the importance of the advice when I fell asleep at the wheel just driving J back from a swimming pool less than half an hour away.  (I know I’ve told this story before.  It made a big impression.  And it bears repeating.)  I was chronically sleep-deprived in those days, and there was something about having been in the chilly water for an hour and then getting in the warm van, eyes gritty with chlorine . . .

It is amazing how powerful the brain’s drive to sleep can be.  It will shut down in complete disregard for the fact that you’re hurtling along in sole control of a two-ton hunk of metal, with others hurtling around you and towards you.  The brain HAS to sleep when it has to sleep.

I didn’t believe it.  We were only 15 minutes from home!  I figured I could have coffee before we left and then pinch my upper lip, slap myself in the face, turn up the A/C, if I still felt sleepy.


Fortunately I felt myself fall asleep.  It was like watching myself vanish, like the Rapture:  my hands vaporized off the wheel, the driver’s seat was empty . . . the van started to veer into the oncoming lane, and I yanked myself back out of the void before any harm was done.  But I vowed never again to ignore the demand for sleep, even if it meant pulling into a mall parking lot ten minutes short of my doorstep.

Our cousin rented a car and drove all the way to Hatteras Light and back today, close to ten hours on the road, getting home at 1:30 A.M.  I gave him this advice before he left, and he reported that it was “golden.”  Somewhere east of Rocky Mount, he stopped at a gas station and took an hour’s nap.  He got home in one piece.  I’m not saying he wouldn’t have if I hadn’t reminded/warned him, but it surely upped the odds.  This is the best parting gift you can give an automobile traveler you love.


  1. CGHill said,

    Back when I was doing epic road trips on a regular basis, I worked diligently to insure that regardless of how much slop I’d permitted in the schedule, I would not try to drive more than 500 miles in a single day, lest I be severely drained before the end of it.

    I seem to have survived. (I recall two violations of this rule in 25,000 miles.) Worst case, from when I was much younger: a 1988 run from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach in one day. Not a good idea to arrive in L.A. after you’ve been beaten to death by the desert.

  2. amba12 said,

    Argh, that sounds like the road trip from hell. It seems to me I ran out of gas once on the Navajo Reservation . . .

  3. Donna B. said,

    We all have different tolerances. I can drive until the sun comes up or until my joints rebel. One of those two things have changed with age. Guess which.

    Sleepiness has never been a problem for me unless I am driving when sunrise happens. Then… I must sleep even if I have just had 8 hours of sleep! It is silly for me to start a trip before dawn.

    A 20 hr trip (1000 miles @ 50 mph) was easy for me until very recently. I made several trips from Williamsburg VA to Shreveport LA and Shreveport to Phoenix ( approx. 1200 miles) without stopping for more than an hour at a time.

    However, my youngest daughter could never make the same trip. She would fall asleep. For her, 800 miles is the absolute max and the trip must end in daylight.

    The longest trip I’ve made without renting a motel room is Shreveport to Las Vegas. I slept in my car for a couple of hours in Kingman AZ. Sundown doesn’t make me sleepy even when I’m driving west though I do try to plan a meal stop about that time because visibility is impaired. Sunup doesn’t seem to impair visibility… but that’s perhaps because I cannot stay awake long enough to experience it.

    Now, physical pain keeps me from driving more than 3 or 4 hours at a time. My hands and wrists cramp and go numb. My knees become immobile and my right foot aches. Tylenol barely dents these pains. My last trip to Phoenix would not have been possible without hydrocodone (which does not make me sleepy, probably because I take a low dose with ample acetaminophen and caffeine.)

    Ahhh… CG… a mere 800 mile trip? I don’t remember how many trips I made from Shreveport to Albuquerque (about 800 miles) when my husband was working there. I never seriously considered stopping between here and there. That’s just another example of what works for one doesn’t work for another.

    But stamina for long trips has nothing to do with becoming sleepy while driving. As Amba makes very clear in her post — it can happen within less than 20 miles from home and happen quickly. It’s not a factor of how many hours one has been awake or how many miles one has driven.

    It’s also not related to being tired. Sleepy is something entirely different. I’m inclined to think that sleepy is an emotional state that we are not fully in physical control of. With lots of conscious effort we can overcome it (as Amba did) but that effort comes at a physical cost which we must repay sooner or later… with sleep. Tired can be overcome with rest… or a change of physical activity.

  4. amba12 said,

    Donna, here/s another experience-based hunch: sleepy may or may not have to do with the emotions, but it often has to do with the eyes and their connection to the brain.

    It was the gritty feeling in my eyes from the pool chlorine that felt like what put me to sleep. It is the horizontal sun in your eyes at sunup, likewise. Brighter then than at sundown because there is less dust and smog in the air from human activity.

  5. Donna B. said,

    In giving a physiological example… you are no doubt correct. But the fact was (is) that it was mere daylight that made the difference for me. I tried eyedrops… and even after more than adequate comfortable sleep… sunrise makes my brain sleepy.

    Just as sunset makes my daughter’s brain sleepy.

    Your experience of extreme uncontrollable sleepiness is something I can relate to very well… the trigger for it is different. I think it’s emotional, but YMMV. Perhaps the similarity is something that relaxes us.

  6. PatHMV said,

    I once (back when I was 21) drove straight from Washington, DC, to Bastrop, LA. Took about 19 or 20 hours. Other than stopping for gas, I pulled into a rest area only once or twice for a quick 15 minute cat-nap. No way I could do that today, at twice that age.

  7. amba12 said,

    OT, Pat, I’m appreciating the special characteristics of your age right now. Having the cousin here, who’s in the same age range as the karate teacher — within spitting distance of 40, one way or the other — has given me the two points from which to construct a line, and refreshed my memories of being that age, which makes it a plane. It was probably my favorite age to be — so intense, and finally getting on top of things, but on top of wild things — really getting the knack of living for the first time. What a great ride.

  8. CGHill said,

    In my case, there’s another factor. Normally, when I drive, I snap into a Full Attention mode, everything working at top efficiency, no problems.

    But this mode apparently saps my reserve power something fierce. Of late, I pull into the garage, and you can practically see the air being let out of my carcass as I switch out of that mode. Admittedly, the last dozen or so commutes have involved temperatures too close to 110 degrees to suit me, but I am pretty well persuaded that there’s a lot more to driving than just sitting there with a turn-y thing in my hand.

  9. amba12 said,

    there’s a lot more to driving than just sitting there with a turn-y thing in my hand. Yes… but it’s amazing how much of it becomes automatic, including the vigilance towards other drivers, UNTIL something alarms you, at which point you come off autopilot in a flash.

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