What To Do When You Notice Your Taxi Driver Falling Asleep?

Filed Under: Travel

I spend a lot of time in the Middle East, for whatever reason. At first it was something I sort of struggled with, as I wrote about in my late 2012 post, entitled “Is the UAE the most depressing place in the world?”

The way I see it, it’s a double edged sword. On one hand the Middle East offers a lot of opportunity, especially for much of the third world. After all, people voluntarily come to the Middle East to work.

Now, there’s no denying that there’s a lot of corruption in the Middle East when it comes to workers, whereby they’re promised one contract when they’re recruited, and then when they get here they’re offered something completely different, all while their passports are being held onto by their employer.

All of this is to say that I have lower expectations of workers in the Middle East than elsewhere, due to the long hours they’re working away from their families. I feel for them, even if they do it by choice.

That being said, last night I was faced with something I haven’t dealt with all that often. I landed from London after 1AM, and at around 2AM hopped into a taxi to the Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort, which is the closest SPG property to Abu Dhabi International Airport.


Usually I try to engage in small talk with the taxi drivers, but this guy didn’t really speak English. That being said, I could clearly see his eyes in the rearview mirror. And they were constantly closing. And when they opened it was ever so slight. And he was swerving a little bit.


Stupid as it may sound, I wasn’t sure what to do:

  • Rely on the universe to figure things out, since presumably this happens all day every day in the Middle East?
  • Pretend to have a coughing fit as a means of waking him up?
  • Try speaking to him in English, even though I had established he didn’t really speak it?
  • Something else?

I should add that the drive from the airport to the Westin is almost entirely on highway and unpopulated roads, so it’s not a case where you can easily get out of the taxi, or anything.

I know it might sound silly, but what would you do if a taxi driver that didn’t speak your language was struggling to stay awake at the wheel?

  1. Going from SIN to the Conrad at like 1:30am my taxi driver was falling asleep (I presume) drifting across lanes for basically the entire highway portion of the ride. There were few enough cars on the road that I just thought it best to close my eyes and hope I got to the Conrad.

  2. This may sound weird, but I’d ask the guy to take a 10 minute nap on the emergency lane. Better than being in an emergency.

  3. Besides completely freaking out inside, I do think my course of action would be to have a “coughing fit”, or maybe open the window, which would be nice and loud ( and cold?).

  4. Has happened to me twice in Shanghai. Once the guy even fell fully asleep at a traffic light. Freaked me out. Normally what I do now (in China) is if I’m in a taxi very late at night I’ll sit in the front seat and try and engage with the driver.. It’s actually not that uncommon for passengers to sit in the front in China so it makes it a bit easier. Once I got to talking with the driver and he said he worked 24 hours on, 24 hours off. Couldn’t imagine what his driving is like at the end of a 24 hour shift!

  5. This happened to me from Park Hyatt Beijing to PEK airport. Halfway there I noticed he was weaving and his eyes were constantly closing. I was traveling with my family, so I was in the front passenger seat. I tried speaking loudly to wake him, also waving my hand near his face. He would shake his head as if to deny there was any problem. Nerve wracking but we made it.

    I remember reading an article soon after how some guys work 24-48+ hr shifts in China to make money.

  6. this too happened to me in shanghai. the driver was drifting across lanes on that huge (at the time empty) toll expressway into the city from the airport. total language barrier. so funny to see others suggest the coughing fit because that’s exactly what i tried. didn’t work so i started clapping my hands and yelling at him in english. i am perfectly willing to be rude if it means avoiding a serious car accident, especially thousands of miles from home.

    when i told this story to locals later, they said i was actually being polite by chinese standards.

  7. “what would you do if a taxi driver that didnā€™t speak your language was struggling to stay awake at the wheel?”

    Wow, I imagine this to be absolutely terrifying! I honestly don’t know what I’d do.

    On another note, you may want to mention that it was a taxi driver whose language you don’t speak. Otherwise, there’s a bit of Steve Martin going on…

  8. Id ask to turn on the radio or start singing loudly šŸ™‚
    Hopefully Lucky knows a few Middle East hit tunes šŸ˜‰

  9. Have this happen quite often in Thailand. One guy fell asleep at a light and when I tapped him on the shoulder, he woke up and drove up the OFFRAMP of the expressway, head on into traffic… fucking crazy. He got turned around and I got to the airport eventually.

    And these are the people that complain about airport trains and UBER – taxis are so much safer and more professional :-\

  10. I had this happen to me with an Uber driver on the way to LAX around 4:30am. He was nodding a bit as we drove on the city streets then fell asleep on the highway and swerved to the right. I screamed at him to wake the you-know-what up and told him if he was too tired to drive then he needed to pull over and stop and call me another car stat before someone got killed. I’ve had the worst experiences with Uber. Give me a good, old-fashioned cab any day of the week.

  11. Been in this situation twice. The first was in China, but with a private driver from one company driving me to another one on a business trip. We were going from Dongguan to Guangzhou, roughly 1hr ride, and he was going numb halfway there. I turned on the radio, started talking to him in english, portuguese, whatever, and he pulled the car so he could rest a bit.

    The other was with a cab driver in Lisbon. My gf and I had an early morning fight, so we stayed out all night and went straight to the airport. I guess the driver was partying as well, as he was totally asleep when driving and looked kinda drunk. So I engaged in talking with him (easy being brazilian),but then he stated answering back by looking behind to see us. Worst 12 minutes of my life.

  12. From the comments I could make out this issue of sub standard work conditions is not only existing in the Middle East but it’s common to South East Asia as well. I travel to the UAE often and have lot of interaction with the taxi drivers. They follow the 12 hour rule strictly. In the case enlisted in this blog post I would probably think the driver did not have proper sleep in his off time.

  13. You forgot an option I’m sure anyone would enjoy:

    – sing Taylor Swift’s greatest hits at the top of your lungs, starting with “Shake it Off”.

    …or just intermittently scream “JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL”

  14. I would partake in some Alpine yodeling to get him to wake up. Acting crazy is better than getting into an accident.

  15. I’d get the driver’s attention through shouting or shoving or smacking and have him pull over and call another cab. Seriously, why would anyone risk their life over social etiquette? The issue of foreign workers being tricked into working in the UAE under false pretenses only to be forced into slave labor is an important issue but I don’t see it changing my mind about willingly putting my life in danger.

  16. To say that people made a choice to go to UAE to work and when they got completely tricked and turned into slaves who cant leave, that its all ok because it was a choice to go in the first place, seems at best delusional.

    Its not as if you even said that you feel hopeless to change it, you just straight up said that when the workers get there they are “offered” something else, what kind of euphemism is that?

  17. play the most irritating noise possible from both phones and the tablet.

    make sure its a mix of classic, house an pop just for good measure šŸ˜€

  18. It amazes me how common it is for people to prioritize being polite over their safety. That should be your number one concern in a taxi and if you have to be rude or mean to ensure that your arrive safely then so be it. I can’t speak of international travel, but I use taxis frequently while traveling domestically and I’ve seen quite a few people complain about extremely reckless driving after they’ve already left and tipped the cab driver.

    I know your situation is a bit different since the driver didn’t speak english, and pulling over to wait for a new car to be called might not have been a good or safe solution either. I would try and make as much disturbing noise as possible, whether that’s coughing or watching an annoying YouTube video at full volume.

  19. I would get the guy to stop on a side & ask him to take a nap,Happened to me in India On my way to another city from Mumbai Airport,
    Best option is to stop at a restaurant/highway stop in the name of some food or to Freshen up yourself, better let some money go instead of your life right…..

  20. Well, as he may see it, perhaps it was just fate that you and he might pass on to the next life that night. Never be afraid to take charge at a moment like that. Your life depends upon it.

  21. always take the hotel transport which would generally ensure this does not happen. If you have doubts it’s easier to cancel and state your reason and as a guest of the hotel you will be given other options. It takes only one admission to overseas medical establishments ( Singapore us an exception) to potentially ruin the rest of your life. I personally pay up and ask for the biggest car, emphasize the driver not have a cold or sleepy when I book.

  22. I usually take the driver for a coffee/tea to help him get freshened up a little before carrying on the journey. It happens a lot in India.

  23. @ John — Don’t mean it that way. And to be clear, for the most part workers aren’t being held “captive.” That’s unfortunately true for many construction workers, but for the most part not true for those working in hospitality, etc.

  24. That is bizarre!
    The exact same thing happened to me and my family in a taxi from Kuala Lumpur Airport to the city back in 2012!

    The drive from the airport to the city is aprox. 1 hour and we tortured ourselves through out the whole journey tyring to keep our taxi driver awaken. My brother was seating in the front and constantly tried to engage in a conversation with him, while my father directly (in a nice way, of course) confronted him about the bizarre situation of him clearly falling asleep on the wheels!

    I must say none of our atempt to fully wake him up worked, and when we finally got to the hotel, we were SO RELIEVED!
    The only “good” part of this whole situation is that we still laugh at it remembering the details and whatnot!

  25. @Lucky I never meant to imply that you agreed with it, my problem was with your words being vague.

    I am appalled by the slave conditions in these countries, that it bothers me when people don’t take it seriously and imply that its somehow like workers not having union representation.

    When workers are getting worked to death in 120 degree heat with no breaks and live in slum like conditions, pointing to how theres other workers who have it good cant be allowed to be a counter point.

  26. John says “I am appalled by the slave conditions in these countries, that it bothers me when people donā€™t take it seriously”

    I hear you. Sometimes it seems Lucky is about to take these things seriously and then a day or two later he seems to have forgotten what he was concerned about or found a way to dismiss it. The routine disconnects and contradictions are hard to follow and rarely clarified. It’s clear that Lucky understands the issues but he never seems bothered enough to make a stand and take his business elsewhere. I don’t care what conventional travel bloggers like Gary do or say because I don’t think they can fully comprehend the concept of social responsibility to begin with. But it’s genuinely disappointing to me that Lucky can see what’s wrong and still rationalize it away the moment it gets in the way of reporting on a new product or service.

  27. Wow Dax. Your first reaction is to resort to screaming and physical assault? For someone who’s so concerned about “fornication” leading to time in a foreign prison, you sure do seem comfortable with resorting to violence…that could also get you arrested, FYI.

  28. We got delayed our of ONT due to wind and got rebooked non stop from LAX-LHR. AA provided us with a free transfer on supershuttle, the driver loaded us in. Just three of us and went off to lax. about 5 minutes into the drive he did’nt seem to start slowing down as we approached an intersection and our light was red. We all sat there and then screamed as he got closer, he slammed on the brakes (a bit too late) as we all thought he was going to stop, skidded through the intersection and plowed into a car that was going through the green light. It was pretty horrible.

    Since then i have vowed never to use supershuttle ever again.

  29. Don’t forget he’s in the car as well, actually in an even more dangerous position than you were. Just take a nap and relax. He’s pro and he knows what he’s doing. šŸ˜‰

  30. Learn a bit of local language before going to that place. That’s what I always do. Once when I was back in China I experienced that however I swore and woke him up

  31. I’m not sure if it would be legal or not nor would I care in a situation like that, but I would ask if I can drive! Not like I’m going to try stealing the cab or doing anything crazy with the sleeping driver in it, I just want to get to my destination!

  32. I myself am a limo driver and could say that I’ve actually started to fall asleep one time while driving close to a 24 hour shift, I actually make my own hours so it’s not as if I was being forced to work, that being said, that day I was making great money and wanted to see if I can make more, i eventually got to the point about the 20 hour mark that if someone would of paid me a 1000 dollars to do a hour ride I would not have cared to do the ride as at that point money did not matter to me and my only objective in life was to go to sleep, actually I heard of a girl here in nj who got a do for being awake to long and driving. Its worst than being drunk because the mind just wants to turn off, drivers shouldn’t really drive more than 12 hours but in poorer countries maybe they have no choice.

  33. This happened to me in TLV. Driver basically had micro-sleeps during red lights… I told him to stop and offered to get him coffee.

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