Abstract Sleepiness has been identified as one of the most important factors contributing to road crashes. However, almost all work on the detailed changes in behavior and physiology leading up to sleep related crashes has been carried out in driving simulators. It is not clear, however, to what extent simulator results can be generalized to real driving. This study compared real driving with driving in a high fidelity, moving base, driving simulator with respect to driving performance, sleep related physiology (using electroencephalography and electrooculography) and subjective sleepiness during night and day driving for 10 participants. The real road was emulated in the simulator. The results show that the simulator was associated with higher levels of subjective and physiological sleepiness than real driving. However, both for real and simulated driving, the response to night driving appears to be rather similar for subjective sleepiness and sleep physiology. Lateral variability was more responsive to night driving in the simulator, while real driving at night involved a movement to the left in the lane and a reduction of speed, both of which effects were absent in the simulator. It was concluded that the relative validity of simulators is acceptable for many variables, but that in absolute terms simulators cause higher sleepiness levels than real driving. Thus, generalizations from simulators to real driving must be made with great caution.