A guest post from tuck.com

Every year, there are nearly 6,000 fatal accidents caused by or related to drowsy driving. Many adults may not realize that getting less than seven hours of sleep puts them a significantly higher risk of getting into a motor vehicle accidents. The brain and body undergo serious changes during sleep deprivation that make it difficult to be alert and make smart decisions on the road. The two-part solution requires taking action behind the wheel and developing habits to get more sleep.

Sleep deprivation changes how the brain functions. During sleep, the brain rids itself of waste while also pruning and strengthening connections made during the day. When it doesn’t have time to perform these important duties, the synapses in the brain begin to slow down. That’s why sleep-deprived drivers miss exits, drift out of traffic lanes, and experience short-term memory loss.

Safe driving requires quick thinking that becomes difficult during sleep deprivation. Driving ability continues to decrease as the number of sleeping hours goes down. For example, getting six hours of sleep increases the crash rate by 1.3 times while getting less than four hours of sleep increases the crash rate by 11.5 times.

Certain populations such as commercial drivers, business travelers, shift workers, and teens are at higher risk for drowsy driving. The nature of their occupations and schedules often have them on the road early in the morning or late at night when the human body naturally wants to go to sleep. When drivers find themselves starting to nod off behind the wheel, there are options. Pulling over in a safe area for a short 15-30 minute nap can counteract the effects of sleep deprivation. Other options include changing drivers, rolling down a window, chewing gum, or turning on loud, upbeat music.

For those in at-risk age groups or occupations, it’s even more important to develop good sleep habits. Sleep hygiene, all those personal habits that affect your sleep, can be improved by making healthy changes in diet and personal habits. It starts with the bedroom. At night, it should be dark, quiet, and kept comfortably cool between 60-68 degrees. The mattress should support a preferred sleep position and not cause any aches or pains.

After a comfortable bedroom, consistency becomes key to good sleep. Keeping a consistent bed and wake time helps to establish healthy circadian rhythms, which control the sleep-wake cycle. These rhythms largely depend on light stimulation to signal the brain to release sleep-inducing hormones like melatonin.

The circadian rhythms’ sensitivity to light is one reason it’s a good idea to shut off screens an hour before bed. The bright blue light from televisions and smartphones can give the brain the wrong signals and suppress the release of sleep hormones. Avoiding stimulants four hours before bed also helps to prevent wakefulness and sleep disturbances.

For those who have a hard time shutting down at night, a relaxing bedtime routine can help calm the mind and body for a restful night’s sleep. Start the routine at the same time every day and perform each step in the same order. The brain will start to recognize the routine and automatically begin the first stages of the sleep cycle.