Long-distance driving can be both a dream and a nightmare. Driving to see the sea on our summer holidays or to see the in-laws at Christmas are two very different journeys...

While we haven't had many road trip opportunities in 2020, many drivers are still commuting up and down the country. Delivery drivers and haulage drivers can spend many hours behind the wheel each day.

And, as 1 in 8 drivers fall asleep at the wheel, staying alert can be a real problem. So, what can drivers do in order to keep alert during long journeys?

By the end of this guide, you will know:

  • What drowsiness looks like in a driver
  • How to stay alert on a long journey
  • What distractions you should avoid
  • How to set your car up properly for long-distance driving


The Warning Signs That a Driver is Tired on a Long Journey

  • You have difficulty focusing or start daydreaming
  • You experience wandering or disconnected thoughts
  • Frequent blinking
  • You have trouble keeping your head up or a heavy feeling in your eyelids
  • You can't remember the last few miles or you start missing exits or signs
  • You start yawning or rubbing your eyes frequently
  • You start feeling restless or irritable
  • You start drifting from your lane or tailgating another driver

These are the main warning signs that you're becoming too tired to keep driving. You might even notice some of them when you're driving home from work, even if it's only a short journey. We'll explain the science behind this later on.


woman yawning in her car, driving tired is bad


What Can a Driver Do to Stay Alert on a Long Journey?

So, how can you reduce the risk of drowsiness during a long journey? Here are 8 simple tips to follow.


Sleep Well the Night(s) Before

Everyone knows they should sleep between 7 and 9 hours a day, but it's all too easy to miss out and build up a sleep debt. Blue light interference from mobile phones and an uncomfortable climate (too warm, too cold, too light etc) can affect our ability to get a proper night's rest.

But it's vital that you sleep well before getting behind the wheel.

Reducing the impact of 'blue light' is simple. Most devices now have a "blue light filter" which you can schedule to come on in the evening. Experts advise that we stop looking at our phone screen 30 minutes before we go to sleep. To make your room cooler, remove blankets or use a thinner duvet. If it's too hot, add blankets and a thicker duvet if possible. If it's too light, use a blindfold or buy thicker curtains to create the perfect sleeping space.

Try to build up three or four nights of proper sleep before setting off on your long-distance drive. While the night before is always the most important, it's best to aim for 7-9 hours most nights. That way, you're always more refreshed, more alert and much more ready to tackle the open road!


Don't Drive at an Inappropriate Time...

Your body has a natural sleep clock. That's why driving between Midnight and 6am puts us at a much greater risk of drowsiness.


road at night, unwise to drive long distances in the dark


Doesn't look appealing does it? If you can, avoid driving at these times, especially overnight. If you have to drive overnight, try and break up the journey as much as possible. However, if you can set off the afternoon before and stop in a hotel, or leave the next morning and drive during daylight, it's best to do so.

Late afternoon is also a bad time to drive. This is why you might notice some of the warning signs on your commute home as well - even if it is only a short journey.


Or Drive Too Far In One Go!

Driving requires a lot of concentration, especially on faster roads like the motorway. As anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter to cram for an exam knows, the human brain cannot cope with concentrating so hard for so long.

That's why you should never drive long distances in one go.

You should have a 20-minute break for every 2 hours of driving. This might seem frustrating and can add a lot of time onto already long journeys, but it's certainly worth it. Resting and relaxing regularly is important to keep you fresh on the road.

Make sure you plan your breaks in advance as well. Have a rough idea of where you're going to stop before you set off. If you have to stop for fuel, make sure you use the time to stretch and have a short walk and a drink as well.


Share the Workload

If you're travelling in a group, make sure everyone who is legal and insured to drive does so. Switching drivers every time you stop for a break helps keep everyone in the car as fresh as possible. And, while you're not behind the wheel, try and sneak in forty winks. Sleeping while on the move will also help keep you fresh for your next stint behind the wheel.

The best way to do this? Hire a rental car and have several named drivers on the agreement. Or, if you're travelling in your own car, insure it with your partner as a secondary driver. That way, everyone's covered if the worst happen.


two people in a car on a long distance drive

Good Posture is Key

Long-distance driving isn't fun when you're hunched over the wheel. Your car should be set up to suit your driving position. If this means you need to adjust your seat before setting off, take the time to do so. We'll explain what you should be checking and the best seating position later on!

If you're changing drivers on your journey, make sure every new driver sets the seat up to suit them. That way, everyone is comfortable and safe at all times.


Stay Hydrated & Stay Off Of the Chocolate Bars!

Did you know? Feeling dehydrated is the same as being over the drink drive limit, leaving you twice as likely to make mistakes like drifting out of your lane!

Make sure you have a bottle of water in the car before you begin your journey. It's very easy to become dehydrated without realising it. Just sitting in a hot, stuffy car can quickly drain your fluid levels, and that's before factoring in your concentration on the road. To avoid dehydration, keep drinking water regularly.

If you start feeling peckish while driving, foods with high-fat content are a bad choice. They're more likely to make you feel sleepy, so stick to healthy snacks like peanuts, bananas or cereal bars. They're full of slow-release energy which will keep your stamina higher for longer!


Avoid Drowsy Medicine or Drinks

Everyone knows that drink driving is illegal. However, even the legal limit makes you far too drowsy for a long journey. Make sure you're totally sober before setting off.

What's more, some prescription medicine can make you feel sleepy as well. Strong hay fever tablets (among others) are the worst culprits. This drowsiness lowers your alertness level and leaves you liable to making mistakes.

Plan your driving around your doses. Avoid taking the medicine while you're on the road and find out if there are side effects before your journey. If you're still worried about driving, talk to your doctor. They may be able to prescribe you something better.



Expose Your Skin to the Sun

No, we don't mean a full sunbathing session on your driveway or pose for the camera. Five minutes in direct sunlight should help wake you up and invigorate you for the journey ahead. It helps that Vitamin D is great for the skin as well!

Obviously, because this is Britain, there's a good chance it won't be sunny when you set off. Nevertheless, make sure you give yourself enough time to wake up and feel the fresh air on your skin. Set an alarm and avoid leaving the house in a rush.

Of course, the best laid plans can always go wrong. It's a good thing there are always artificial means to help then...


Drink a Caffeine Shot Before Setting Off

Yes, our good friends, tea and coffee! A caffeine boost before setting off will help perk you up and make you more alert. It's also worth stopping at least once on your journey for a caffeine top-up - but don't become over reliant!


And Here's What You SHOULDN'T Do...

Yes, there are some solutions that really don't help. We're probably all guilty of using these at some point in our driving lives'  - but now is the time to stop!


Rely on Caffeine Too Heavily

A small amount of caffeine is good - too much only masks the problem.

If you feel like you NEED coffee to stay awake, you probably need to stop and get some shut-eye instead. Caffeine is only a short-term solution, and the boost fades fast. If you keep throwing more caffeine at the problem, you won't make yourself any more alert - and you might struggle to sleep after your journey as well!


Distract Yourself to Stay Alert

Loud music, an open window or a conversation, either in person or on the phone, are not effective solutions. All three take your focus off the road and act as dangerous distractions above anything else.

Instead of freshening you up, they trick your body into thinking it isn't tired because it's focusing on something else. That puts you in even more danger.


Not only is this illegal, it's an unnecessary distraction on your long drive. You'll still feel tired!


Plus, by early 2021, it could be illegal to even touch your mobile phone while driving! Even if you have a hands-free set, you can still be fined £200 for switching songs or accepting a phone call. That's some incentive to leave it alone!


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How to Set Your Car Up Correctly for Long-Distance Driving

Long-distance driving is best when you're comfortable. We briefly touched on this earlier on, but what's the best way to set up your cabin? And why is it so important?

Well, it's easy to injure yourself while driving. The more you drive, the more likely an injury is, especially if your driving position is wrong.

Did you know? According to the Driving Times, 4/5 people have suffered back/shoulder pain as a result of driving!

Other common injuries include

  • Pins and needles
  • Cramp
  • An aching neck
  • General stiffness


man sitting in driver's seat, correct posture for a long distance drive


The easiest way to avoid all this? Setting your seat up in a comfortable position. Here are 6 tips to achieve the perfect driving position, courtesy of the experts at Loughborough University and the RAC:

  1. You should be able to push the clutch pedal all the way to the floor without having to stretch.
  2. If this means that you're reaching for the steering wheel, adjust it. Your arms should remain in a neutral position at all times.
  3. When seated, your hips should be at the same height as your knees.
  4. You can adjust the back angle of your seat. Make sure you don't have to slump, stretch or bend anything to sit flat against the back rest.
  5. Position your mirrors and satnav correctly. You shouldn't have to bend or twist too much to use them.
  6. The head restraint should be level with the top of your head. It should also be as close to the back of your head as possible.

Most of these should be easy. However, some older cars might not allow you to adjust as many aspects of the cabin. If that affects you, here are some other simple tips to make your driving position a bit comfier.


Buy a Seat Cushion

If you can't raise your hips and are usually slumped in your seat, this will help. This will raise you up and help you see over the steering wheel better. You shouldn't crane your neck to see the road ahead.


Increase Lumbar Support

This helps with back pain and lets you rest against the seat more comfortably. There are plenty of lumbar support cushions available, and they're pretty cheap to buy.


Take More Regular Breaks

If there's nothing else you can do, it's vital that you get out of the car and stretch regularly. Maybe stop every hour instead of every 2 and go for a short walk when you do so.


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Staying fresh and alert is the most important part of long-distance driving. If you're drowsy or unfocused, you're more at risk of an accident. Remember to:

  1. Take regular breaks, factoring them into your journey before you set off
  2. Get plenty of sleep the night before
  3. Make sure your driving position is comfortable and that you minimise your risk of injury