Sleep your way to safer driving

Stimulants such as coffee might seem like a nice way to relax after a long day's driving, but drinking a cup too close to bed can disrupt sleep patterns.

Stimulants such as coffee might seem like a nice way to relax after a long day's driving, but drinking a cup too close to bed can disrupt sleep patterns.

Let's not let the politics of truck drivers’ sleep get in the way of something we all need. It’s not always a dramatic wake up as you wander over the rumble strip or hear horns honking frantically that lets you know your sleep could be better. Sometimes it's all the worries drifting through your mind as you try to fall asleep while the clock counts down to drive time again. You're not alone, getting good sleep is an issue for people of all walks of life, all over the world.

How can a long-haul driver get better sleep?

The special challenges of sleeping on the road and transitioning back and forth between home and cab sleeping make this a tough topic for drivers and their loved ones. Here are a few steps that can smooth the transition and help improve sleep wherever it's supposed to happen.

  1. Have a routine. You might not be a baby anymore, but if you want to sleep like one, think about how to get your brain ready for sleep every night. A simple routine, done in a similar way before each sleep, can help your racing thoughts park it for the night. Here's an example, but you can make a routine that fits you. Bathe/wash face/brush teeth/empty bladder, walk for a few minutes, gently stretch back, legs, arms and neck, send "I love you, goodnight," messages, close curtains, fluff pillow, stretch out, say a short prayer or goodnight to yourself.
  2. Think about sensory issues when it's not bedtime and make a plan. Do you need new earplugs? Are the curtains in your cab doing the job, or should you ask family members to look for black-out fabric and make something that fits over the windshield and windows for the next job? Are there bad smells or bugs that aren't just passing through and that better housekeeping habits would help? Baby wipes and a stack of grocery bags to keep trash corralled can do wonders!
  3. Nights at a truck stop might seem quiet to four-wheel travelers passing through, but how often have you had a rotten night's sleep in your cab because of lights, sounds, smells, vibrations or late-night knocking? Pay attention to your surroundings when choosing a spot to spend the night, avoid spots where there will be traffic passing closely, dumpsters or latrines upwind of your rig, and consider a homemade "Driver doesn't carry $" magnet for your door to deter "pests" from knocking and waking you up. Free magnet ads laminated with a printed sign would do the job, or you can find pre-made versions online.
  4. Try to eat at least a couple hours before bed and limit fluids during that time to avoid nature calling at a bad time. Caffeine is a first half of the work-day drug, if you're drinking coffee or soda all afternoon that's going to mess with sleep. Research suggests that overuse of caffeine to mask sleepiness is more dangerous than most people, including doctors, believe. Stimulant medications (prescription or not) are the same deal - while the first jolt seems to wear off quickly, you're still going to experience effects later on. Don't forget that nicotine is a stimulant as well - smoking, vaping or using smokeless tobacco products in the hours before sleep might seem relaxing in the moment, but will interfere with sleep.
  5. Taking good care of your body improves your sleep, and good sleep improves your health. It seems like a chicken/egg problem, but you can tackle both at the same time and make some changes you'll notice quickly. A bit of exercise after waking up can help get your whole body ready for the day. It's not hard to do some walking, stretching and light exercises during necessary stops (calf raises and standing push-ups) don't take any extra time. Ready to make a plan for fitness? Check here for some great ideas. Keep in mind that exercise too close to bedtime can make it harder to sleep for many people. Keeping tabs on your overall health and dealing with problems that come up can keep you driving better and living life better outside of work. Driving is sedentary work, and sitting all the time is a risk for many health problems, including diabetes.
  6. If you struggle with falling asleep, play one of these free audio exercises for relaxation from UCLA. I recommend starting with the 5-minute breathing meditation or 13-minute body scan for sleep. You're not too manly for these, I've seen veteran soldiers use mindfulness exercises with great results, and you can too. Sleep well and drive safe.

For a comprehensive overview of sleep health and current recommendations (not specific to professional truck drivers), download the free Healthy Sleep Guide from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.