Can your car keep you from getting tired while driving?

Automakers are searching for ways to reduce driver fatigue. In other words, methods to keep you chipper (and alive) until you reach your destination. Want to learn more? Check out these car safety pictures.
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We've all done it: The jerk and panic. You're driving along a straight, lonely stretch of highway. Your bum is sore, there's a crick in your neck, your left shoulder feels like it's on fire and the next rest stop is in the next state. You've got no choice but to keep on keepin' on.

Next thing you know, you jerk your head up and clutch the steering wheel in a panic. Were you abducted by aliens? Are you living two lives simultaneously? Did you just teleport into someone's body? Are you the guy from "Quantum Leap?" No. Nothing nearly so cool. You just got a little sleepy and nodded off while driving your car.

Luckily, companies like Nissan have your back -- literally, in the case of Nissan's "fatigue-free seats" (aka zero-gravity seats). Nissan looked at the posture the human body assumes in a weightless environment and created a seat with spinal support to recreate that posture on Earth. Not only on Earth, mind you, but on Earth in the 2012 Nissan Altima. No time travel required.

Nissan's new seats support the driver (and coming soon to a car near you, all the passengers, too) from the chest to the pelvis, which means each muscle group all along the back of your body is required to do less work. They can share the load that is your body mass. Sharing the load also improves blood flow, which keeps random parts of your body from falling asleep. All of this works together to reduce fatigue and keep you chipper and alive until you reach your destination.

But Nissan isn't the only one who wants you to stay bright-eyed and bushy-tailed while you drive. There are sensors in the works that can be placed under the seat fabric to measure your heart rate -- no sticky disks attached to your chest required. When your heart rate slows down, it signals to the sensors that you're getting sleepy -- very, very sleepy. It's up to the manufacturer of the car using the sensors to determine just how it wants to jolt you awake. Insert maniacal laughter here.

Wakey, Wakey, Eggs and ... LOOK OUT!

Here's the problem with Nissan's comfy seats, though they do sound delightful. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), "Limited evidence suggests that physical discomfort (such as sitting in an uncomfortable seat or position ... ) may also keep sleepy drivers awake." So in other words, the crappy, ripped seats with the sprung springs and the busted armrest in your old jalopy may just save your sleepy life.

So what does work? Only two things: Napping and drinking caffeine. And only one thing will wake your sorry bum up if you do jerk and panic: Rumble strips.

Here is a list of things that DO NOT work for staying awake on a dark desert highway:

  • Walking, jogging, doing jumping jacks for a few minutes
  • Listening to the radio
  • Rolling down the windows
  • Talking on a mobile phone (this actually increases the risk of crashing)
  • In-car drowsiness alarms
  • Alerting devices

The special problem associated with alarms and alerts is that they can give a sleepy driver a false sense of security. You may feel emboldened to drive when you know you're too sleepy because your car is so smart it'll tell you to wake up. Your car is like KITT. You are like the Knight Rider. That should be a drowsiness test in itself: If you're comparing yourself to David Hasselhoff, do not drive.

Author's Note: Can your car keep you from getting tired while driving?

I was surprised to learn, in the course of doing research for this article, that being uncomfortable -- even shivering or sweating -- will keep you more alert and attentive than a comfy seat. It makes sense, when you think about it, but at the same time, we still want that comfy seat. Who wants to drive cross-country with a leg that's fallen asleep or a knot between their shoulder blades? I'm sure it would keep me awake, but it sounds miserable.

The other thing I pondered while writing this article is that comfort over long driving distances seems like it may be more of an American problem. How far do people typically drive in Japan, or England or Lichtenstein? Granted, the average American only drives about 40 miles a day, but I'm not so sure other countries have the same romantic relationship we do with the road trip. Why bother developing a comfy car seat when people can just take a high-speed train?

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  • Brockman, Brian. Corporate communications manager at Nissan. E-mail interview, conducted on Oct. 31, 2012.
  • Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. "Driver Fatigue." USDOT. (Oct. 31, 2012)
  • Hicks, Jennifer. "Sensors to Detect Driver's Fatigue." Oct. 29, 2012. (Oct. 31, 2012)
  • NHTSA. "Drowsy Driving and Automobile Crashes." National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (Oct. 31, 2012)
  • Nissan (press release). "Comfort Zone: Seat Technology Aims to Cut Fatigue." Nissan News. Oct. 22, 2012. (Oct. 31, 2012)