A new report out recently by the Centers for Disease Control says roughly 1 in 24 adults admit they have fallen asleep or nodded off while driving in the last month.
But instead of popping a NoDoz or downing an energy drink, drivers of some newer car models have in-car systems designed to help keep them awake.
Car manufacturers are increasingly trying to solve—or at least mitigate—the problem of having people fall asleep at the wheel: Ford, Mercedes Benz, Volvo, General Motors, and other companies have designed drowsy driver warnings for certain car models.
An alarm bell sounds in the 2013 Ford Fusion if it detects the car drifting out of its lane, while Mercedes' "Attention Assist" detects a person's driving style during the first few minutes of a trip and compares it to their behavior later in the trip. If the system detects a different driving style, it might be a sign that the driver has nodded off or is sleepy, and it warns the driver that he or she might need to rest. Other car manufacturers have implemented similar systems.
Wade Newton, a spokesperson for the Auto Alliance, which represents 12 major car manufacturers, says the systems are designed to work in concert with responsible drivers.
"The driver is a fundamental part of the automobile—buckling up and being engaged is a big part of what makes driving safe," he says. "It's critical that drivers be alert and that they realize driving is a multitasking process."
Car manufacturers aren't the only ones designing mechanisms to keep people awake while driving. There were a few smartphone apps developed to keep drivers alert, but most of them have gone defunct: The Anti Sleep Pilot, designed to be used while mounted on the dashboard, used light and sound tests to determine a driver's reaction time and suggested when drivers should consider resting. Drivia was a voice-controlled trivia app that was designed to keep drivers speaking. Both of those apps no longer exist, but there is still one: Anti Drowse Safe, which periodically makes loud, jarring noises.
While technology might offer a few solutions for drowsy driving, sleep experts say tired driving might be a symptom of a bigger problem.
Mary Carskadon is director of Chronobiology and Sleep Research at Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island and a professor at Brown University. She says many people who fall asleep at the wheel might have a serious sleep disorder and not even know it.
"Experiencing drowsy driving is a sign to see a doctor—people who have sleep disorders and are treated won't be drowsy drivers anymore," she says. "Other people make bad judgments or make lifestyle choices that negatively impact their alertness."
In her research, Carskadon has found that young drivers are more likely to drive tired than older adults, data that's backed up by other studies. In November, a study by the AAA Foundation found that one in seven 16-24 year old drivers had nodded off while driving over the past year.
"They don't have good strategies—people will drive while sleepy repeatedly, because they survive it one time," Carskadon says. "It sends your brain the message that it's not risky, but that's not true."
Carskadon says sleepiness detectors in cars can be helpful as long as people don't come to overly rely on them.
"If people just persist in driving despite what their car is warning them to do, I think that's worrisome," she says. "But before rumble-strips got put on so many places, I had worried that they were just giving sleepy people a crutch. As they've been implemented, we've seen they can make a positive difference."