How to combat driver fatigue

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Powernap sign

(An RACV backgrounder article by Georgia Baggio, RACV research and policy officer)

Who hasn’t zoned out in a long meeting or napped on the couch after a heavy day? No one is immune to tiredness, but dozing off while driving can be deadly.

One in five fatal crashes in Victoria can be attributed to driver fatigue – meaning that approximately 60 lives may have been lost across Victoria in 2016 due to tiredness, along with hundreds of serious injuries.

Fatigue can limit your ability to concentrate on driving, slow your reaction times, and cause you to drift in your lane. In a dicey situation, it can be the difference between a near miss and a fatal crash.

The risk of fatigue is highest in drivers who have not had enough quality sleep, and those driving at a time when they would usually be sleeping. Drivers who experience fatigue can often have disrupted sleep patterns, and the risk of fatigue is highest in shift workers, 18 to 25-year-olds and sleep disorder sufferers.

The myth

A common misconception is that tiredness can be overcome by grabbing a coffee, winding down the windows, and pumping up the radio. These may give you a short-term jolt, but the only way to effectively combat driver fatigue is to sleep.

The facts

  • Falling asleep for two seconds while travelling at 50km/h means you will wake up 27 metres further down the road – if you’re lucky.
  • A driver who has not slept for 17 hours is just as likely to crash as a person over the legal limit with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .05g/100ml.
  • Being awake for 24 hours makes a driver seven times more likely to have a crash than a well-rested person, the same risk as a person who is double the legal alcohol limit with a BAC of 0.1g/100ml..
  • Sleeping is the only way to repay your sleep debt. Everyone needs sleep to function effectively, and when we put it off we accumulate a sleep debt. Without quality sleep this debt adds up, and may lead to an unavoidable urge to sleep.
  • The most effective way to avoid fatigue is to regularly get seven to eight hours of quality sleep.

What you can do

  • A tired driver may find it difficult to remember the last few kilometres, or notice that their speed is varying. Take note of these signs.
  • If you feel tired while driving, stop for a 15 to 30-minute power nap.  Allow time to recover before you drive again.
  • Avoid driving between 1am and 6am, when fatigue-related crashes are most likely.
  • Don’t set out on a long trip after a day’s work, or at a time when you would usually be sleeping.
  • Before a long trip, plan regular rest breaks. RACV’s rest stop information sheets may help.
Written by RACV
June 13, 2017