It seems a strange thing that you could fall asleep on a loud and exciting motorcycle, but it can and does happen; just not as often as in a car.
In a car, you are seated in a comfortable and supported position, the temperature is controlled and noises are muted. It’s a conducive atmosphere for sleep and is claimed to cause about 15% of fatal car crashes.
On a motorcycle, you are buffeted by the wind, you have to hang on and balance and noises are much louder and abrupt. It’s not a conducive atmosphere for a snooze.
But if you are starved of sleep, you can still have microsleeps on a motorcycle.
A microsleep is a short unconscious episode that can last up to two minutes during which you close your eyes and stop taking in and responding to external stimuli.
Causes of drowsiness
Even if you are not drowsy, you can still fall into a microsleep if you are riding at a time when you would normally be asleep.
That does not necessarily mean night time. If you are in America, for example, riding in the afternoon could be dangerous in the first few days of your visit because it is late evening at home in Australia.
Obviously, if you have had several nights where you have not slept well, the cumulative affect can cause a microsleep. People who suffer insomnia or sleep apnea are more susceptible to microsleeps.
Of course if you suffer from narcolepsy, riding a motorcycle is not for you!
It’s not just sleep-deprivation that causes a micro sleep. It can also be brought on by a monotonous task.
What! On a motorcycle?
Yes, a long, straight highway with no turns is boring and can induce a hypnotic state.
Alcohol and drugs (legal and prescription) can also cause drowsiness.
You know you are getting tired when you start to yawn, your eyelids droop, your thoughts wander, you feel irritable, you are drifting around on the road, you lose focus, your vision blurs or your head starts to nod.
Don’t let it get to this stage. Look for early warning signs and pull over.
Prevention of microsleep
The problem with feeling tired is most people push through and drive/ride on, according to a 2012 University of Queensland study.
You need to be aware that you are drowsy and take steps to do something about it, before you fall into a microsleep.
If you are overseas, avoid riding at a time that correlates with sleep time back home, or at least wait a couple of days until your body clock readjusts to local time.
It’s a danger for we motoring journalists who are shuttled to the other side of the world for bike launches often the same or next day!
In which case, it’s important to take regular stops to freshen up, or even to take a 15-minute nap.
You can also take stimulants such as coffee and energy drinks, but only in moderation and with less sugar.
In very simple terms, caffeine stops your brain from recognising a drowsy chemical called adenosine. However, your body doesn’t stop making adenosine, so when the caffeine wears off, you have a build-up of the chemical which causes fatigue.
Coffee can also cause dehydration that makes you feel tired. That’s because – in simple terms – when your body loses water, your blood thickens and pumps slower, reducing oxygen which makes you sluggish.
Conversely, drinking lots of water not only fights fatigue, it also makes you pull over more often for a toilet stop which should wake you up!
When you stop to go to the toilet, try taking a short nap as well.
Obviously, stay away from alcohol and other drugs that may make you drowsy.
Even having alcohol the night before your ride can be harmful as it reduces the length and quality of your sleep, leaving you tired the next day.
As for food, try healthy choices that energise you such as complex carbohydrates and protein.
Example of a long microsleep
We had never heard of anyone having a long microsleep on a motorcycle … and living to tell the tale!
That is until we saw this article on Quora, a question-and-answer website where interesting questions are answered by experts.
David Wright of London posted this reply to “can you fall asleep a motorcycle?” in which says he slept for four minutes in central London, passing through six sets of traffic lights … and survived!
Absolutely. In a car, you will CRASH – but on a bike…
Back in the Seventies, I lived in N.E. London. And for several months, I worked nights at a West End all-night multi-storey car park. I could tell you a number of bizarre stories about THAT – but this one concerns an experience I had while commuting TO it.
Every evening, around nine, I would ride my BSA motorbike along the same route, to Leicester Square. I had done it hundreds of times – so I could do it in my sleep. I just never thought I actually WOULD.
On this occasion, I had been busy, so had been up all day. But since there were a number of guys on duty until midnight, I figured I could get forty winks after I arrived – and forty more, during the night, after the clubs had chucked out.
But as I passed Mount Pleasant sorting office, it suddenly HIT me. I realised I had hit a wall – metaphorically speaking. I knew if I did not find somewhere to sleep for a few minutes – and quickly – I would FALL asleep where I was.
My mind raced through alternatives – there were hotels where I could walk in, sit in a chair in reception and gather the required few minutes sleep (I was dressed reasonably – so figured I would not be abused as a derelict).
But the hotels were nearly as far away as my destination – I would never make it. There was only one solution. The pavements were dry and at that time, quiet.
Extraordinary though it was, I would park up my bike and lay down for a few minutes and…
…the next thing I knew, I was approaching the Shaftesbury Theatre. And the last four minutes were MISSING. I had SLEEP-RIDDEN!!!
Since I was still moving – and after my impromptu nap, slightly refreshed – I continued on my way to work. But after our “rush” period was over and I was alone, I had time to consider what had just happened.
I had heard of sentries falling asleep standing up – and sleepwalkers performing simple, familiar tasks, like making a cuppa. But I had also heard of MOTORISTS who had nodded off at the wheel and woken up in HOSPITAL – or in The Next World – however, they did not have to retain their BALANCE.
And with what I knew about sleep, this all made sense. When asleep, the upper areas of our conciousness rest – but the lower areas continue. If they did not, we would stop BREATHING. Thus, being able to ride a motorbike along a frequently-traveled route while in the Land Of Nod ought to be JUST possible.
It HAD to be – I had DONE it.
But while keeping my balance and following a familiar route might be possible – sleepwalkers seemed to manage that okay – could I detect a red traffic-light, slow down, change gears, de-clutch, stop, put a foot down, note the green, balance the clutch against the accelerator and move off, changing up again?
NO WAY! Which meant I had just gone through SIX traffic lights – ASLEEP!!!
Over the next few weeks, I carried out a little survey, to determine what the odds were that all of the lights had been GREEN. And at the end, I worked out they had only been ONE IN SIX!
To be fair, two of the lights were pedestrian-only – but that only lowered the odds to one in four. Which means there is still a SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT likelihood that I went zooming across a red light – like in a Keystone Kops movie – narrowly missing DEATH.
But I will NEVER KNOW…