Driver fatigue is a major reason for deaths on our roads

We all know that drunk drivers, drug drivers and drivers distracted by their phones are a major danger.

But we often overlook one of the biggest killers… fatigue.

Sleep-related accidents are more likely than any other cause of a collision to result in a fatality or serious injury.

And we can all be guilty of driving when we are too tired.

Research carried out for the AA Charitable Trust’s #drowsydriver campaign, launched in November 2018, showed:

  • One in eight (13%) UK drivers admit to falling asleep at the wheel
  • Nearly two fifths (37%) say they have been so tired they have been scared they would fall asleep when driving
  • Men (17%) are three times as likely as women (5%) to say they have fallen asleep at the wheel

Research also shows that men under the age of 30 have the highest risk of falling asleep at the wheel

Young drivers may be more at risk because of busy social, work and education lives which affects the amount of sleep they get.

Plus young people tend to require more sleep than older adults.

Research by the AA states:

  • Young drivers, aged 18-to-24, are the most likely to say being very tired does not affect their driving ability (13% compared to 2% of all drivers)
  • Young drivers are also the most likely to say they normally carry on regardless if they feel tired while driving (18% compared to 3% of all drivers)

Driving when tired isn’t against the law but doing so significantly increases the chance of committing other offences or causing a collision.

And the penalty for causing death by dangerous driving is up to 14 years imprisonment.

But why is it that driving makes us tired? You’re just sitting there? Surely it can’t be that tiring?

Driving is mentally taxing. You have to be switched on at all times.

When you’re tired, your reaction times are badly affected, making driving feel like a draining task.

Plus there’s plenty of other factors that can result in driver fatigue.

Sleep Deprivation

Of course the most obvious factor that can cause you to drowsy drive is sleep deprivation.

Most of us need between 7.5 to 9 hours of good quality sleep a night.

But most of us struggle with this.

Missing the odd hour with a late night or early start now and then is fine but when this builds up over time you can find your body in a major sleep debt.

If you have a busy social life, work or college commitments it can all soon add up.

It’s a good idea to make sure you are getting enough sleep – and ensure it is a high enough quality, so switching off devices an hour before sleep and avoiding caffeine at night will help with this.

And if you know you are in a major sleep debt then don’t drive.

Most people wouldn’t get behind the wheel when they are drunk, but won’t consider tiredness as an important risk.

Time of the day

Peak times for sleep-related accidents are in the early hours and after lunch.

Our bodies are naturally programmed to sleep at night and be awake during the day but there is a spike in the production of melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleep) during the afternoon so we get drowsy.

Also driving at times when you would normally be sleeping can result in feeling tired at the wheel.

Shift workers driving home after a long time working can be particularly vulnerable to this.

Driving when your body is working against its natural body clock is never a good idea so try to plan around this.

You are dehydrated or hungry

Your body needs the right fuel – just like your car.

If you are hungry or dehydrated your body will slow down and feel tired.

Try and avoid eating sugary food when you know you have to drive. It may give you a quick hit to wake you up in the short term but you will come crashing down much quicker and feel even worse.

When driving also try to avoid heavy meals that can make you sleepy and eat low GI foods that release the energy much slower and keep you fuelled.

Also, is it worth being aware that drinking even a small amount of alcohol whilst tired can significantly impair your driving. Sleep deprivation and tiredness is a dangerous cocktail.

The Route

The route you drive can bring on fatigue.

Long stretches of empty road without much stimulus can see your alertness drop – and if you are already tired you can find yourself dropping off.

Try and use routes that demand you stay alert and always plan a long journey and take regular breaks.

Driving alone

While noisy passengers can be a distraction, travelling with someone can actually reduce your chances of fatigue.

Conversation can keep you alert and if you can share driving duties even better.

Plus having someone by your side who can spot if you are getting drowsy can keep you from falling asleep at the wheel.

The fact that 82% of sleep-related accidents involved a single driver shows the difference this can make.

What to do if you start feeling tired when driving

Studies have shown that drivers don’t fall asleep without warning. Fatigue is a warning sign before you fall asleep and so you need to take action.

Drivers who fall asleep at the wheel often tried to fight off drowsiness by opening a window, or by turning up the radio.

This doesn’t work for long.

If you find yourself doing these things, it’s a sign you are sleepy and need a break.

Here are some tips for how to get yourself home if you are fatigued:

  • Stop as soon is safely possible and take a break
  • Drink a cup of coffee or caffeinated drink
  • Have a low GI snack
  • Take a short nap for around 20 minutes- by the time you wake, the caffeine will have taken effect . (You can sleep in your car as long as you’re legally and safely parked and are not under the influence of drink or drugs).

Planning ahead

When driving long distances it makes sense to plan ahead and follow these rules:-

  • Don’t drive for more than 8 hours a day
  • Plan for breaks every two hours
  • Take regular fifteen minute breaks in journeys over three hours
  • Allow for an overnight stay if required
  • And DON’T start a long journey if you’re tired

Instructors who are part of the Engage Driving scheme cover driver fatigue, and other subjects not included in the test, as part of their lessons.

You can find your nearest engage instructor by clicking here or if you are an instructor who would like to join and support the scheme find out more you can find out more here