Experts share top tips for staying alert during long drives this winter

Young woman wearing a scarf in the car driving in winter

With the holiday season quickly approaching, roads are likely to become busier as people shop around for presents, attend events, and visit family and friends around the country. However, higher traffic congestion can often result in more accidents, as people begin to lose concentration during these longer journeys.

Therefore, it is important to stay alert behind the wheel so that you can remain aware of your surroundings and minimise the risk of being involved in an accident.

With this in mind, experts from private hire specialist Zego have shared their top tips to help you stay alert during long journeys if you are planning to travel this winter.

Start your journey well rested

When planning a long drive, make sure to get plenty of rest before you leave, as good sleep is important for staying alert behind the wheel for long periods of time. This may be difficult depending on your departure time, but at least try to avoid driving for long periods of time straight after a day of working.

Going to bed early the night before and beginning your drive early the next day means you have plenty of daylight hours to complete the journey. This can hopefully get you to your destination before it gets dark, especially in the winter with the shorter days.

If you feel yourself becoming drowsy whilst driving, pull over at the nearest rest stop or service station to take a quick nap to allow you to catch up on sleep.

The Sleep Foundation recommends an optimal nap length of around 20 minutes for adults. Most service stations will allow you up to 2 hours of free parking, so be sure to set an alarm to prevent you from sleeping past this window.

Eat and drink healthily

Be considerate of what you consume whilst on the road as this can have an adverse effect on your driving performance.

In colder weather, the body has a diminished thirst response, which means you are less likely to know when you are becoming dehydrated. It’s important to drink plenty of water, otherwise, you are likely to feel sluggish and tired when you need to concentrate.

Aim to have breakfast before you leave, stop somewhere for lunch, and have an evening meal when you arrive to keep to a healthy eating schedule and ensure your body receives the energy it needs.

It is best to avoid heavy, greasy foods that can make you feel sleepy after consumption. Healthier snacks like fruit, nuts, or vegetables are better for keeping energy levels up and can be brought along to eat throughout the journey.

Wait up to 2 hours before consuming caffeine

Although it may seem tempting to drink a coffee for some initial energy before starting your journey, evidence from For Wellness suggests that it is better to wait up to 2 hours after waking, before consuming caffeine.

Adenosine, a compound in our body that builds up during the day and produces sleep pressure, is typically cleared out at night, so we feel more alert when we wake up. If you do not sleep for long enough, any lingering adenosine will keep you feeling tired.

Consuming caffeine blocks your adenosine receptors, which makes you feel alert for a short amount of time but leaves any lingering adenosine in your body to return in force. Waiting between 90 and 120 minutes before drinking coffee lets the adenosine clear out fully first, which means that you are likely to feel less tired later in the journey.

Engage the senses

Scheduling regular breaks during your driving day can be very beneficial for rejuvenating the body and getting some fresh air after sitting down for a long time. In fact, the UK government recommends taking a 30-minute break after 5 hours of continuous driving.

Fresh air is known to help clear your lungs, boost your mood, lower your heart rate, and increase energy levels, so even a half-hour break can improve the rest of the journey both mentally and physically for the driver and any other occupants.

If it is not possible to stop regularly, you can keep yourself focused and alert by engaging your senses in other ways. Open the windows slightly to let in some fresh air or listen to some upbeat music to stimulate your mind.

Chewing some gum can also help enhance your ability to concentrate. Recent studies have shown that chewing gum can enhance attention and can be associated with higher productivity and cognitive thinking.

Avoid driving late at night

Whilst sometimes unavoidable, try to avoid driving at night due to the increased focus required to stay safe on the roads. There is lower visibility, potential fatigue, and the likelihood of heavier traffic due to shorter daylight hours in the winter.

Most night-time drivers are likely in the same drowsy state from pushing themselves past their limits. This can make it harder to predict what other people are going to do and react accordingly, especially if you are fatigued yourself.

If possible, avoid starting a long trip when you would usually be sleeping or relaxing. Your body is used to resting at a certain time, and your focus is likely to be impaired.

Invest in some useful tech

You can also make use of technology to automate parts of the driving experience, which enables you to better conserve your attention. Some cars have collision avoidance systems, blind spot monitoring can make you aware of other cars, and a rear-view camera mirror can help you see everything happening behind you.

Some technology can assist in tracking your alertness levels to prevent potential accidents caused by becoming drowsy. These devices can work via face monitoring, although some smartwatches are able to track your activity levels and make you aware of potential fatigue. Road safety charity Brake says driver fatigue contributes to about 4% of fatal road crashes in Britain.

Lane departure and lane-keep warning systems are also helpful for avoiding crashes due to you unintentionally leaving your lane. The system detects lane markings and alerts you if you are veering via a warning indicator, a vibration in the steering wheel, or an audible alert. This has been designed for motorway driving, where long distances and repetitive roads can lead to loss of attention.

Sten Saar, CEO of van insurance specialist, Zego said: “With it being such a busy time on our roads over the holidays, it’s vitally important that all drivers take the necessary precautions to keep themselves and others safe. The drivers we insure are no exception – in fact, they’re probably the most important people to use these tips and tricks since they spend so much time out on the roads. It’s imperative they stay safe because, in our view, they are key workers for our economy, not just over Christmas, but all year round.”

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