Driver fatigue: as bad as drink driving?

Tired driving is a bigger problem than most people imagine. Research suggests that it could be a contributory factor in up to 30% of road collisions. The true figure might be even higher as there’s no way to test for it as there is with alcohol or drugs. Unless a driver admits to falling asleep, drowsy driving can be almost impossible to detect.

Fleet managers may also be lulled into thinking it’s no big deal in terms of driving for work as statistics tend to show that crashes caused by tired drivers are likely to happen between 2am and 6am – but this isn’t the only risk factor. The following are equally culpable:

  • The period 2pm-4pm (the ‘post-lunch slump’);
  • Long journeys on monotonous roads, such as motorways;
  • After having less sleep than normal;
  • After drinking alcohol;
  • If taking medicines that cause drowsiness;
  • On journeys home after working long hours, particularly night shifts.

Critically, says Rospa, crashes that involve fatigued drivers are 50% more likely to result in death or serious injury as they tend to be high-speed impacts because “a driver who has fallen asleep cannot brake or swerve to avoid or reduce the impact”. 

Warning signs

Lack of sleep is well known to lead to cognitive impairment as it can affect your coordination, judgement and reaction time while driving. The links to drink driving are all too apparent, not least the disturbing parallel in the way that tired drivers choose to ignore the risks in the way that drink drivers do. Drowsiness also increases the effect of even small amounts of alcohol.

Certainly, research suggests that being awake for 17 hours has the same impact on your driving ability as a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05%. This would put you at the legal limit in Scotland. Going without sleep for 24 hours has the same effect as a BAC of 0.1%, well over the drink drive limit for the rest of the UK (0.08%).

Once you start to yawn, feel like you need a coffee, to wind the window down or put on loud music, your decision-making is already at risk. And if you notice the following, you need to take urgent action. 

  • Struggling to remember the last few kilometres driven;
  • Missing exits or traffic signs;
  • Drifting from your lane or hitting a rumble strip;
  • Having difficulty maintaining a consistent, correct speed;
  • Waiting at traffic lights, not noticing the lights have changed.

What are the best solutions?

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is adamant that rolling down the windows, turning up the radio or drinking a caffeinated beverage are not enough to stave off drowsiness. It says:

“If you are drowsy while behind the wheel, find a safe, legal place off the roadway to take a break to recharge with exercise. Physical activity such as a brisk walk or moving around offers a natural boost of energy.”

It also recommends that on long trips, drivers should schedule breaks every two hours or 100 miles to stretch and move around. And while it might not be feasible for all work drivers, they also recommend not driving solo on long-trips. “A driver accompanied by a passenger is nearly 50% less likely to be involved in a drowsy-driving related crash,” it says.

Another potential solution is the ‘coffee-nap. Researchers at Loughborough University used a driving simulator to measure the impact of various ‘wake-up’ remedies. The most effective at improving driver performance, which “virtually eliminated the mid-afternoon drowsiness peak” was a combination of caffeine and a short sleep.

Its success comes from the fact that it takes up to 20 minutes for our bodies to respond to the effects of caffeine: “By taking a short nap immediately after consumption, the stimulant effect kicks in just as you are waking up – not only will you feel revived from your power nap, you’ll also have the added benefit of the caffeine boost.”

Be warned, however, that if you don’t like coffee, cans of Coca-Cola or Pepsi are unlikely to contain enough caffeine to be effective. Also, any sugar in your drinks may lead to a glucose rush that prevents you from napping.

Reinforcing the message

It’s thought that as many as 40% of sleep-related accidents involve commercial vehicles. The obvious solution is for all drivers to get a good night’s sleep, not drink alcohol and avoid any medication that might make them drowsy. This is easier said than done, of course, and woe betide the manager who tries to impose these kind of restrictions on their workforce.

What you can do, however, is to Introduce policies that mandate regular breaks for drivers, incorporate ‘driver fatigue’ into your training and look into tools like Brightmile that ensure drivers are much more conscious of their driving style and the risks they might be taking.

If you have a spare 90 seconds

Click and watch the ‘Night shift’ video from the Traffic Accident Commission in Victoria, Australia. You’ll soon see why the TAC has a well-deserved reputation for hard-hitting driver safety ads

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