CO2 and sleeping while driving

  • #1
Ivan Seeking
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After almost falling asleep while driving the other day, I got to thinking about CO2. I started to wonder if due to normal respiration of the driver and or occupants, CO2 levels in a car can rise to levels that can inhibit responses or even lead to unintended sleep, and make driving unsafe. I was struck by how quickly I regained composure as soon as I opened the window for fresh air. Maybe cars are too air tight for our own good?
 

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  • #2
SteamKing
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Spending time in any sealed enclosure without adequate ventilation is not recommended. Fortunately, you learned (or re-learned) this lesson without injury to yourself or others. Cars are built with multiple means to provide ventilation to the cabin. Please use at least one at all times, even if it's just leaving a window open a crack.
 
  • #3
Doug Huffman
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My VW owner's manual is clear that the HVAC vent should be open but for exceptional circumstances. For the usual position of the function control, recirculation is defeated.
 
  • #4
russ_watters
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Was the fresh air cold?

In winter, it would be very difficult to have a CO2 problem before a humidity/condensation problem. Most cars have an indicator that tells you whether the outside air damper for the HVAC is open or closed. In summer it should almost always be closed and in the winter it should almost always be open.
 
  • #5
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Maybe cars are too air tight for our own good?
Do you turn off the air coming from the outside?
 
  • #6
NascentOxygen
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Maybe cars are too air tight for our own good?
Maybe also too warm or too comfy to maintain a high state of alertness.
 
  • #7
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~1kg of CO2 per day and person, or half a cubic meter. Let's assume the car has 3m3 of volume inside, then you get ~0.7% of CO2 per hour (by volume, a bit more by mass). Driving for more than two hours without any ventilation is not a good idea, and with multiple passengers you'll certainly need some sort of air exchange.
I was struck by how quickly I regained composure as soon as I opened the window for fresh air.
I would expect temperature had a larger effect there.
 
  • #8
.Scott
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After almost falling asleep while driving the other day, I got to thinking about CO2. I started to wonder if due to normal respiration of the driver and or occupants, CO2 levels in a car can rise to levels that can inhibit responses or even lead to unintended sleep, and make driving unsafe. I was struck by how quickly I regained composure as soon as I opened the window for fresh air. Maybe cars are too air tight for our own good?
A slow build up of excessive CO2 will result in hypercapnia. The normal reflex to hypercapnia is to awaken so that you can reposition yourself during sleep.

Unless you are missing this reflex (a potentially fatal condition), what you are describing is not consistent with a hazardous buildup of CO2.

If there was a buildup of CO2, that may have been what awakened you.
 
  • #9
OmCheeto
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According to our government, a difference of only 1.4% in the level of oxygen means the difference between normal, and minimum required, to have no effect.

* 20.9 percent: Percentage of oxygen found in normal air. No effect.
* 19.5 percent: Minimum permissible oxygen level. No effect.

From my calculations, if you were in a 2015 Subaru Outback, with a very voluminous 100 ft3 of air, it would only take about an hour and 20 minutes before there were noticeable effects.

Of course, a smaller vehicle, and extra occupants, would reduce the time.

ps. It looks like mfb and I have come up with very similar numbers, so I'll not recheck my maths. (available upon request)
pps. Please use the homework template in the future. :oldwink: :biggrin:
 
  • #10
Ivan Seeking
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Normally I have the exchange open but noticed later that it was closed. It wasn't very cold out that night but it was raining. And it is possible that the windows not receiving forced warm air were fogged, but I don't remember. If they were I wouldn't have necessarily noticed.

I did find this
Results: Relative to 600 ppm, at 1,000 ppm CO2, moderate and statistically significant decrements occurred in six of nine scales of decision-making performance. At 2,500 ppm, large and statistically significant reductions occurred in seven scales of decision-making performance (raw score ratios, 0.06–0.56), but performance on the focused activity scale increased.

...100,000 ppm causes visual disturbances and tremors and has been associated with loss of consciousness; and 250,000 ppm CO2 (a 25% concentration) can cause death...
http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1104789/

I've never heard of it being potentially dangerous to drive without an air exchange. If true it would be news to a lot of people I'm sure. It could be argued to be a dangerous design flaw.
 
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  • #11
russ_watters
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~1kg of CO2 per day and person, or half a cubic meter. Let's assume the car has 3m3 of volume inside, then you get ~0.7% of CO2 per hour (by volume, a bit more by mass). Driving for more than two hours without any ventilation is not a good idea, and with multiple passengers you'll certainly need some sort of air exchange.
This also assumes the car is completely air tight, of course, and it isn't anywhere close.
Ivan said:
I've never heard of it being potentially dangerous to drive without an air exchange. If true it would be news to a lot of people I'm sure. It could be argued to be a dangerous design flaw.
It isn't dangerous. Cars are nowhere close to tight enough for CO2 buildup to be a problem.

You breathe out a lot more water than CO2 -- much faster than you'd notice high CO2 content, it would practically be raining in the car.
 
  • #12
Doug Huffman
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As I recall, and it has been many years now since I was last at sea as responsible crew or irresponsible civilian, the minimum [O2] concentration on submarines then was 17.5%!

When we were at quiet-ship for long durations, [O2] was minimized to keep everyone in their bunks, groggy and miserable. Watch standing was a challenge. The roving watches would fill a drum liner from the O2 discharge and huff from it, but only for the psycho-ilogical boost.
 
  • #13
.Scott
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As I recall, and it has been many years now since I was last at sea as responsible crew or irresponsible civilian, the minimum [O2] concentration on submarines then was 17.5%!
rgl.faa.gov/Regulatory_and_Guidance_Library/rgFAR.nsf/0/
Sec. 91.211

Supplemental oxygen.

(a) General. No person may operate a civil aircraft of U.S. registry--
(1) At cabin pressure altitudes above 12,500 feet (MSL) up to and including 14,000 feet (MSL) unless the required minimum flight crew is provided with and uses supplemental oxygen for that part of the flight at those altitudes that is of more than 30 minutes duration;
(2) At cabin pressure altitudes above 14,000 feet (MSL) unless the required minimum flight crew is provided with and uses supplemental oxygen during the entire flight time at those altitudes; and
(3) At cabin pressure altitudes above 15,000 feet (MSL) unless each occupant of the aircraft is provided with supplemental oxygen.
At sea level, the O2 partial pressure is 0.2095 atmospheres.
At 12,500 feet MSL, the partial pressure is 0.5950 x 0.2095 = 0.1247 atmospheres (equivalent to 12.47% O2 at sea level).
At 15,000 feet MSL, the partial pressure is 0.5363 x 0.2095 = 0.1124 atmospheres (equivalent to 11.24% O2 at sea level).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barometric_formula
 
  • #14
Ivan Seeking
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This also assumes the car is completely air tight, of course, and it isn't anywhere close.

It isn't dangerous. Cars are nowhere close to tight enough for CO2 buildup to be a problem..
With inhibited function at possibly as low as 0.1% CO2, I don't see how you can support that statement.
 
  • #15
russ_watters
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With inhibited function at possibly as low as 0.1% CO2, I don't see how you can support that statement.
Cars are not very air-tight....but perhaps more to the point, do you really think that if this were a real issue it wouldn't already be well known? Ivan, you're blind-guessing here. You have an idea in your head and you are chasing it for no reason. Don't let your imagination get the better of you here.

It was warm and humid in your car, which does cause people to feel drowsy. Then you opened the window and the cold air hitting your face woke you up. That's it. This isn't rocket science.
 
  • #17
Ivan Seeking
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Cars are not very air-tight....but perhaps more to the point, do you really think that if this were a real issue it wouldn't already be well known? Ivan, you're blind-guessing here. You have an idea in your head and you are chasing it for no reason. Don't let your imagination get the better of you here.

It was warm and humid in your car, which does cause people to feel drowsy. Then you opened the window and the cold air hitting your face woke you up. That's it. This isn't rocket science.
I just don't take arm waiving arguments as convincing; especially given the calculations already done and the paper cited. Frankly, I expect more from PF. And I did cite impaired function and not just a loss of consciousness as a point of interest. I'm not arguing that I fell asleep due to CO2. It may have been a blood sugar issue. But as soon as I did the math in my head I couldn't help but wonder.

Also, anyone who has ridden in a closed car with a smoker may question just how much air exchange takes place during normal driving.
 
  • #18
Doug Huffman
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@.Scott, yeah, I know I have climbed Mount Whitney's 14,500 feet twice, once the easy way and once the hard way. Anyone seriously mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada knows to acclimate for a week before pushing.
 
  • #19
RonL
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A car in motion can have some serious air flow conditions, that produce a vacuum on parts of the body. Depending on seals and insulation, sucking air out of the cabin is likely if vents are closed or windows not opened a little.
 
  • #20
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This also assumes the car is completely air tight, of course, and it isn't anywhere close.
Sure.
You breathe out a lot more water than CO2 -- much faster than you'd notice high CO2 content, it would practically be raining in the car.
That is a good comparison. ~30g of water per cubic meter at 100% relative humidity, so 100g H2O would make it rain. Give or take a factor of 2 depending on temperature and car size.
 
  • #21
256bits
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With inhibited function at possibly as low as 0.1% CO2, I don't see how you can support that statement.
Where did the inhibited function come from?
1000 ppm CO2 is generally unoticable.
Symtoms of drowsiness at that level are also generally unsupported, although some people do seem to indicate such a symptom.

OSHA allows a 5000 ppm maximum for an 8 hour workday, and that is even low for toxic effects to become apparant.
Which would of course include include increased resperation rate, since your breathing is affected by CO2 levels and not O2 levels in the blood.

ASHRAE standards set it to around 700ppm, as being indicitive of insufficient air exchange ( accumulation of other human volatiles would be more noticable than CO2 buildup )

I would suspect that, perhaps,
While driving, a somewhat sedentary person heat rate becomes lower, less frequent respiration, and a possible lower core temperature, similar to sitting in the living room and becoming drowsy. Physical inactivity in other words.

Although, I have become drowsy while driving, and it seems the best sleep in my life I will ever get is coming along. Stopping, getting fresh air, and running around the car works for a while, but 5 minutes into the drive, the drowsiness re-occurs. What is going on with that, I have no idea, since an elevated CO2 level should have been purged from the interior, if that is/was the culprit.

Perhaps the research is not complete, and there actually is a "drowsiness" effect during a range of elevated low levels of CO2 that people can be susceptable to, much like the stufiness of a meeting in a conference room.
 
  • #22
Doug Huffman
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Highway hypnosis.

I learned to drive in a 1960 Land Rover 88" 1200 cc MOWOG and never got sleepy in that noisy, cold, unstable, slow rattle trap, even on long Western states trips. Our plush-mobile, at that time, Volvo PV544 was smooth and quiet and sleep inducing.
 
  • #23
Ryan_m_b
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I've just spent some time trying to find any guidelines/regulations on ventilation in cars. I can't find any with a casual google search but I'd be shocked if they didn't exist, at the very least there's probably industry data somewhere on the natural airflow in cars. I agree with those saying CO2 build up is very unlikely, given the ubiquity of cars and long distance driving this would have been a famous issue discovered and solved long before now.
 
  • #24
russ_watters
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I just don't take arm waiving arguments as convincing; especially given the calculations already done and the paper cited.
The calculations look nice, but since they don't take into account the most important factor, they really aren't worth much*. And you didn't provide a relevant paper.

Look, if you really want to know for sure, CO2 monitors start at about $120 on Amazon. I'm always looking for an excuse to pick up a work relevant tool, so I may get one too.

*No offense guys: it looks like a nice lower bound calculation, but when it scares the OP into taking it too seriously, it can be counterproductive.
 
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  • #25
russ_watters
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ASHRAE standards set it to around 700ppm, as being indicitive of insufficient air exchange ( accumulation of other human volatiles would be more noticable than CO2 buildup )
That's 700 ppm over ambient, which is about 500-700 itself.

Everything else is good. Yes, the 1000 ppm threshold was far too low to notice the kind of effect Ivan observed.
 

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