Tackling driver fatigue

WORLD SLEEP DAY – 15TH MARCH 2019

On a day that celebrates the importance and benefits of sleep, it’s sobering to recognise that driver fatigue has contributed to one in six road crashes resulting in death or injury on major roads[1].

It’s a known fact that fatigue greatly affects a driver’s awareness of what’s going on around them on the road. It also impacts your ability to control your vehicle and react in good time.

In a study by the sleep research centre in Loughborough[2] that covered 6 years of road accident data, 17% of road traffic crashes resulting in injury or death were sleep-related.

The study found that the likelihood of this kind of accident increased on non-motorway roads when those roads were busy. On the flip side, busy motorway traffic decreased the likelihood of sleep-related accidents on motorways – these accidents happened more when the motorway was quieter.

The most common kind of accident caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel is running off the road or into the back of another vehicle. They tend to be high-speed crashes because the driver doesn’t brake before crashing, so the risk of death or injury is high[3].

Fatigue is hard to spot and can’t be tested for in the same way that drugs and alcohol in a driver’s system can be. Because of this, it’s likely that all figures on fatigue-related crashes are more conservative than the real figures.

Causes and symptoms of driver fatigue

Some of the most common factors in driver fatigue are lack of sleep or disturbed sleep, stress, and irregular sleep patterns, which might be an issue for shift workers. Driving for long periods is also a risk, especially on monotonous motorway journeys. Some modern cars have in-built break alerts to advise drivers to stop every two hours – the longer you drive, the more time it takes to recover driving performance[4].

Most people do recognise the symptoms of fatigue, but tend to downplay the dangers of continuing to drive. Warning signs include:

  • Increased difficulty concentrating
  • Heavy eyelids
  • Yawning
  • Eyes starting to roll
  • Neck muscles relaxing, making the head drop

Concerningly, drivers suffering from fatigue may experience a ‘micro sleep’ which is where they drop off for anywhere between two and 30 seconds. For the driver it might feel like they’ve just briefly nodded their head, but they’ve actually been asleep – during which time they’ve had no control over their car whatsoever.

Tackling / avoiding driver fatigue

Plan ahead – make sure you’re well rested before travelling, and don’t set off on a journey when you’re already tired.

Allow time for regular breaks, at least 15 minutes every two hours.

Stop as soon as possible if you feel tired. Don’t risk driving drowsy as your reaction times are increased and you’re less able to pay attention to what’s going on around you. If necessary, pull over somewhere safe and have a short nap.

Avoid driving at times of day that you’re more likely to be tired, like late at night.

Consider using public transport as an alternative to driving if you’re concerned that proper rest periods might not be possible, or the time of travel can’t be readily moved.

If you drive for work

Driving for work carries certain health and safety requirements, and employers will have risks assessments, responsibilities around vehicles and staff driver competence, and rules for taking regular breaks.

However, the driver is still responsible for being aware of their own physical state and recognising drowsiness and the risk of continuing to drive in a tired state. It can be tempting to keep driving to make a deadline or to get home on time, when it might not really be safe to do so.

A journey planning procedure can help to reduce the likelihood of driver fatigue posing a problem.

For more on driver fatigue and road safety, see the resources below:

Brake, the road safety charity

The Don’t Risk It Campaign

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents

 

[1] Road Safety Research Report No. 52 Sleep-Related Crashes on Sections of Different Road Types in the UK (1995–2001), Sleep research centre, Loughborough, 2004

[2] https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100202201109/https:/www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/roadsafety/research/rsrr/theme3/sleeprelatedcrashesonsection.pdf

[3] PACTS, Staying awake, staying alive: the problem of fatigue in the transport sector, 2014

[4] The impact of continuous driving time and rest time on commercial drivers’ driving performance and recovery, Harbin Institute of Technology, 2014