Too tired to drive? Why not just drink some coffee and get over it? According to the government, that’s perfectly fine.
Well, no, that’s horrible advice, and it’s coming straight from the Twitter account for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But this is more than just a Bad Tweet. The link in the NHTSA tweet is broken for some reason, but if you rummage around their website, you can find the source document for this questionable coffee advice titled “Report to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees Describing Collaboration Between National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health”.
The report seems to date back to the late 1990s and outlines a project to analyze drowsy driving. It cites younger groups between the ages of 16 and 29, night shift workers and sleep disorder patients as being at the highest risk for drowsy driving. One of the solutions, in a Congressional report based on a study involving multiple federal institutes, is to knock back one or two cups of joe, or some caffeine supplement equivalent.
From the report (emphasis mine):
To prevent drowsy driving and its consequences, Americans need information on approaches that may reduce their risks.
- The public needs to be informed of the benefits of specific behaviors that help avoid becoming drowsy while driving. Helpful behaviors include (1) planning to get sufficient sleep, (2) not drinking even small amounts of alcohol when sleepy, and (3) limiting driving between midnight and 6 a.m. As soon as a driver becomes sleepy, the key behavioral step is to stop driving—for example, letting a passenger drive or stopping to sleep before continuing a trip. Two remedial actions can make a short-term difference in driving alertness: taking a short nap (about 15 to 20 minutes) and consuming caffeine equivalent to two cups of coffee. The effectiveness of any other steps to improve alertness when sleepy, such as opening a window or listening to the radio, has not been demonstrated.
There’s a few reasons that I’m slightly surprised to find coffee consumption as a federally-recognized short-term remedy for not maintaining consciousness while operating a vehicle.
The first is that, if you’re at a point where you feel the need to shotgun a cold brew, you should probably postpone whatever driving you need to do. This is similar to the people who argue they can miraculously text and drive and it’s not a problem. You are not an exception. You will get away with drowsy driving until you don’t. The rumble strips on the side of some highways are there to wake you up, sure, but the danger you’re putting yourself and other motorists in at that point really isn’t worth getting to your destination when you feel like you need to.
It takes around 10 to 20 minutes for the caffeine in coffee to start doing its thing and, according to Caffeine Informer, doesn’t take full effect until around the 40 minute mark. You’re driving drowsy at a minimum of ten minutes and may not feel anything up to 40 minutes or more into your trip. If you’re doing a shorter commute, like to or from work, it’s likely you wont feel the full effect of the coffee until you’ve already arrived.
There’s also the issue of caffeine affecting people differently. According to Caffeine Informer, ten percent of people are hyposensitive to caffeine, meaning it has little to no affect to them unless it’s in extremely large doses. The majority of people, however, have a normal sensitivity. For normal sensitivity drinkers, though, the daily suggestion is only 300 to 400mg of caffeine, which is only about two cups of brewed coffee. This mean’s you’d be taking your full recommended daily “dose” of caffeine if you follow the NHTSA’s recommendation.
The recommendation should simply be to never drive while drowsy. Coffee has too many variables to be an effective solution. Take a nap, re-schedule the trip or find another way to get where you need to go. Drowsy driving is just as dangerous a distraction as driving under the influence or phone use.
If you have to rely on a drug to drive, you shouldn’t be driving.