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How to stay alert while driving long distances

how to stay awake driving long distances in a truck
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January 9, 2020

Driving long distances can get tiring, whether it’s due to unchanging scenery, nighttime driving, recent poor sleep or just hour after hour of the open road.

Truck drivers often need to drive long distances, but whether you travel hundreds of miles a day or you’re a motorist gearing up for a cross-country trip, this list on how to stay alert driving long distances is for you.

But first …

Warning signs and symptoms of driving fatigued

Many people assume they’ll know when they’re too fatigued to drive, but since drowsiness makes it harder to tell, you may need to be aware of other indicators, including:

  • Speed variations
  • Slower reaction times
  • Turning up the volume on the radio
  • Feeling uncomfortable in your seat
  • Adjusting your hat repeatedly
  • Opening and closing the windows
  • Looking straight ahead and not doing traffic scans as often as you should
  • Forgetting which mile marker you’re at

If you experience these or any other symptoms …

An important warning if you are fatigued while driving

If you are tired, find a safe and legal place to park and get some rest. There is no substitute for proper rest. Do not take chances by pushing to stay awake through a tired spell. If you have to ask yourself how to stay awake when driving, you shouldn't be driving. Get rest when your body needs it.

trucks parked at a truck stop

For truck drivers, it’s the law, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations:

“No driver shall operate a commercial motor vehicle, and a motor carrier shall not require or permit a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle, while the driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, or so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, illness or any other cause, as to make it unsafe for him/her to begin or continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle ...”

But if you’re just looking for tips to enhance your vigilance and situational awareness during long stretches on the road, here you go:

How to stay alert driving long distances

How do truck drivers stay vigilant on the road? In addition to adhering to Hours of Service regulations, use these fatigue countermeasures and truck driver tips to stay alert:

1. Know and listen to your biological clock.

You have a circadian rhythm, a 24-hour biological cycle built into your body. Be aware of how much sleep is optimal for you, typically 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep in a 24-hour period.

Microsleeps (when the thinking part of the brain goes to sleep and you can’t remember the last stretch of road you’ve driven; eyes remain open and can last 5-15 seconds) are a warning sign of sleep debt, getting less sleep than you need.

2. Leave home early and well rested.

Get a full, quality night of sleep before you leave on your long-distance drive, and make sure you eat a healthy meal before leaving as well. If you are a night driver, ensure you get your rest before you leave. You may need a room with dark shades or curtains.

3. Plan every trip.

A good trip plan is a must. Plan so that you can stop for stretch breaks every 2-3 hours, and be aware of safe, well-lit truck stops or rest areas in case you need to recharge with a nap.

trip planning how to stay awake

4. Plan for 7-8 hours of sleep during your long breaks.

Truck drivers are required to take 10-hour breaks, but be sure you’re allocating enough of that time for sleep, and finding good places for truck drivers to sleep. Relaxing while awake does not recharge you like sleep does.

5. Take naps when needed.

If you feel fatigued, stop in a safe place to take a nap of 20-40 minutes long. After 40 minutes, it will take you longer to wake up, and when it is time for a 10-hour break later, it may be harder to fall asleep then.

6. Limit your caffeine intake.

Caffeine, although a stimulant, is only a short-term fix if your body is not used to it. If you’re needing to rely on caffeine, that may be an indicator you need more sleep.

7. Avoid alcohol.

Never drink and drive. Beyond that, even alcohol consumption before going to sleep leads to disrupted sleep and can lead to drowsiness quicker.

8. Stay hydrated.

Carrying and consuming plenty of water is one important way to be a healthy truck driver.

9. Scan actively and drive defensively.

Move your eyes every two seconds, check a mirror every 3-4 seconds and develop a 6-8 second scanning pattern (e.g. right mirror, front, left mirror, front, gauge, front).

truck driver checking mirrors to stay alert

10. Listen to something different.

Engage your mind with an audio book, listen to active music or tune into a radio talk show to pass the time. Be careful with increasing the volume level, though, as you need to be aware of your surroundings (e.g. emergency sirens).

11. Eat light before going to bed.

A big meal before bed can keep your body awake longer. Save the big meal for when you get up or in the middle of the day, and plan smart ways to cook on the road.

12. Be careful with any medications.

If you are taking any medication, either prescription or over-the-counter, ensure they will mix without any adverse side effects. Schneider offers a support line to call to make sure a certain medication is legal to use while still operating the equipment. Schneider drivers can get it through their training materials or driver leader.

Also, if you have truck driver sleep apnea, be sure you’re treating it appropriately.

It all boils down to safety

“Safety First and Always” is Schneider’s top core value, and well-rested drivers make for safe drivers. Do all you can to be a safe driver, with the help of our driver safety blog posts.

About the author
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Schneider Guy loves the "Big Orange." He's passionate about the trucking industry and connecting people to rewarding careers within it. He's been the eyes and ears of our company since our founding in 1935, and he's excited to interact with prospective and current Schneider associates through "A Slice of Orange."

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