by Maureen Lynch Vogel, senior manager for public relations at the
National Safety Council

For 15 years, I’ve regularly driven the same 300+-mile route from suburban Chicago to the east side of Michigan to see my family. I know which exits have the best rest stops, where to find vegetarian-friendly fast food options, and when to fill up my tank before hitting long stretches of farmland where gas stations are scarce.

A drive that should take just over five hours usually takes around seven, depending on traffic and number of stops. I plan accordingly; traditionally, I bring a small snack, a thermos of coffee and a bottle of water, and I download plenty of podcasts to make the trip a little more manageable and – in theory – to keep me awake.

Research indicates that your performance starts to decline after 90 minutes of continuous driving, making you a roadway threat.

While I never deviated from this routine, I never actually arrived feeling alert. Usually, I walked in the door irritable and groggy, complaining as if my family could do something about it.

On my last trip home, though, I tried something new. Calling to mind all I’ve learned about fatigue since working at the Council, I decided to take purposeful breaks throughout the trip, even though it added an extra half hour to my ETA.

These brief but frequent stops completely changed the drive. I arrived calm and rested, ready to start a pleasant visit rather than rant. 

Most of us have heard about the benefits of giving your mind and body regular rest. However, I imagine that, like me, many people file that information away with other wellness tips, thinking they are “nice to know” but unreasonable to implement. After all, we have a 24/7 culture that considers burnout and fatigue to be badges of honor. The more you can do, and the faster you can do it, the better.

But failing to rest does more than just lower our quality of life. It actually presents a safety issue. This is especially true of repetitive tasks, such as driving. Research indicates that your performance starts to decline after 90 minutes of continuous driving, making you a roadway threat. And, 21 percent of fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver. Taking regular breaks on long trips should be a priority, not a luxury. 

During my purposeful breaks, I got out of my car and stretched. I took a few deep breaths. I selected a new podcast. I checked my email and texts. When I settled back in 10 minutes later, I felt like I was getting behind the wheel for the first time that day. I was relaxed, refocused and refreshed.

There are many tips that promise to enhance your life. I can’t vouch for all of them, but taking regular breaks during a long commute is one well-being pointer I’ll never ignore again.

Maureen Lynch Vogel is a media and communications professional with 14 years of expertise in journalism and public relations. She joined the National Safety Council in 2011 and was instrumental in creating its media department. She currently leads all media relations activities, develops external messaging and conducts spokesperson training for subject matter experts.