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Driver Safety

Driver Fatigue and Road Accidents

Introduction

Driver fatigue is a serious problem resulting in many thousands of road accidents each year. It is not possible to calculate the exact number of sleep related accidents but research shows that driver fatigue may be a contributory factor in up to 20% of road accidents, and up to one quarter of fatal and serious accidents.

These types of crashes are about 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.

Sleepiness reduces reaction time (a critical element of safe driving). It also reduces vigilance, alertness and concentration so that the ability to perform attention-based activities (such as driving) is impaired. The speed at which information is processed is also reduced by sleepiness. The quality of decision-making may also be affected.

It is clear that drivers are aware when they are feeling sleepy, and so make a conscious decision about whether to continue driving or to stop for a rest. It may be that those who persist in driving underestimate the risk of actually falling asleep while driving. Or it may be that some drivers choose to ignore the risks (in the way that drink drivers do).

Crashes caused by tired drivers are most likely to happen:

  • on long journeys on monotonous roads, such as motorways
  • between 2am and 6am between 2pm and 4pm (especially after eating, or taking even one alcoholic drink)
  • after having less sleep than normal
  • after drinking alcohol
  • if taking medicines that cause drowsiness
  • after long working hours or on journeys home after long shifts, especially night shifts
Drivers should:
  • Try to ensure they are well rested, and feeling fit and healthy (and not taking medication which contra-indicates using machinery), before starting long journeys
  • Plan the journey to include regular rest breaks (at least 15 minutes at least every two hours)
  • If necessary, plan an overnight stop
  • Avoid setting out on a long drive after having worked a full day
  • Avoid driving into the period when they would normally be falling asleep
  • Avoid driving in the small hours (between 2am and 6am)
  • Be extra careful when driving between 2pm and 4pm (especially after having eaten a meal or drunk any alcohol)
  • If feeling sleepy during a journey, stop somewhere safe, take drinks containing caffeine and take a short nap.

Many professional drivers, report increased levels of sleepiness and are involved in a disproportionately high number of fatigue-related accidents. However, two thirds of drivers who fall asleep at the wheel are car drivers. Most (85%) of the drivers causing sleep-related crashes are men, and over one third are aged 30 or under. Data courtesy of ROSPA.

How To Avoid Falling Asleep at the Wheel

Driving when you are tired greatly increases your accident risk. To minimise this risk

  • Make sure you are fit to drive. Do not begin a journey if you are tired. Get a good night’s sleep before embarking on a long journey.
  • Avoid undertaking long journeys between midnight and 6am, when natural alertness is at a minimum
  • Plan your journey to take sufficient breaks. A minimum break of at least 15 minutes after every two hours of driving is recommended
  • If you feel sleepy, stop in a safe place. Do not stop on the hard shoulder of a motorway
  • The most effective ways to counter sleepiness are to drink, for example, two cups of caffeinated coffee and to take a short nap (up to 15 minutes).

Most of the things that drivers do to try to keep themselves awake and alert when driving are ineffective, and should only be regarded as emergency measures to allow the driver time to find somewhere safe to stop. Drinking at least 150 mg of caffeine and taking a nap of around 15 minutes are the only measures that help to reduce sleepiness. But even these are temporary measures; sleepiness will return if the driver does not stop driving within a fairly short period of time.

The safest option is for drivers to avoid driving when sleepy, when they would normally be sleeping or when they are ill or taking medication which contra-indicates driving or using machinery. It is crucial that drivers plan journeys, especially long ones involving driving on motorways or other monotonous roads.