The problemDriver tiredness is one of the biggest killers on our roads, particularly on motorways and other monotonous roads, where it causes one in five crashes. Research suggests that about 300 people are killed each year as a result of drivers falling asleep at the wheel.
Crashes caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel typically involve vehicles running off the road or into the back of another vehicle. They tend to be relatively high-speed crashes, because drivers do not brake before crashing, so the risk of death or serious injury occurring is greater than in other types of crashes.
Too little sleep radically affects your ability to drive safely and after five hours’ sleep you only have a one in ten chance of staying fully awake on a lengthy journey.
Warning signsResearch shows that normal sleep does not occur without warning. You should know when you are starting to feel sleepy. Warning signs include: increased difficulty concentrating; yawning; heavy eyelids; eyes starting to ‘roll’; and neck muscles relaxing, making the head droop. If you experience these symptoms, you should find somewhere safe to rest as soon as possible, rather than trying to fight off tiredness. Winding down the window, listening to music and talking to a passenger do not help prevent sleep, although they may temporarily help you to stay alert until you find somewhere safe to stop.
MicrosleepsA ‘microsleep’ occurs when someone nods off to between two and 30 seconds without realising or remembering it, often recalled afterwards as ‘head-nodding’. This occurs when people are tired but are trying to stay awake, most common in monotonous situations. Nodding off for just a few seconds at the wheel can be fatal: if you are driving on a motorway at 70mph and nod off for six seconds you would travel nearly 200 metres, which could take you across three lanes of traffic and down an embankment onto another road or train track.
What should you do?Get plenty of sleep before a journey, plan your journey to include time for adequate rest and don’t set out if you are already tired.
Be particularly wary of driving unusually early or after a full day’s work. Better to stay overnight somewhere or take the train than drive a long way home after a busy day’s work.
If you start to feel sleepy while driving:
- Stop for a 15 minute break somewhere safe as soon as possible. This should never be on the hard shoulder as this is extremely dangerous.
- If you drink caffeine, drink two cups of coffee or a high-caffeine drink, such as an energy drink. But be aware this provides temporary alertness only.
- Take a 10-15 minute rest or snooze, but no longer as you will go into a different type of sleep. Set an alarm clock to wake you. By the time you wake up any caffeine you have drunk will have kicked in and you may feel alert enough to continue your journey.
- If you still feel tired, you should not continue your journey. - Remember caffeine is a temporary drug and its effects do not last long. Sleep is the only long-term cure to tiredness. So if caffeine is helping you feel alert, it won’t last long and you may have to stop again soon.