Driver fatigue is a serious problem resulting in many thousands of road collisions each year. It is not currently possible to calculate the exact number of sleep related collisions because of the difficulty in detecting whether fatigue was a factor. However, research shows that up to 20% of collisions on monotonous roads, such as motorways, in Great Britain are fatigue related.
Sleepiness increases reaction time. It also reduces vigilance, alertness and concentration so that the ability to perform attention based activities 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.
Young male drivers, truck drivers, company car drivers and shift workers are most at risk of falling asleep while driving. However, any driver travelling long distances or when they are tired, is at risk of a sleep related collision.
The early hours of the morning and the middle of the afternoon are the peak times for fatigue accidents, and long journeys on monotonous roads, particularly motorways, are the most likely to result in a driver falling asleep.
Sleep related accidents tend to be more severe, possibly because of the higher speeds involved and because the driver is unable to take any avoiding action prior to collision.
It is not a specific offence to drive when tired, however a driver is more likely to commit a driving offence whilst tired. This may be as significant as causing death by dangerous driving and there has recently been a successful conviction of a driver who fell asleep at the wheel.
At work drivers are 30-40% more likely to be involved in a road traffic collision than others. Drivers who complete more than 80% of their annual mileage on work related journeys are involved in at least 50% more road traffic collisions resulting in injury, than drivers who do no work related mileage.
Between 20-65% of company cars are involved in a collision every year. That’s more than one million fleet vehicle insurance claims in the UK, costing almost £2billion.
Employers have a vital role to play in managing the risks involved in their employees who drive for work purposes. As part of their health and safety policies and practices, employers should adopt and implement the principles of managing occupational road risk, with particular reference to reducing the risk of their employees being involved in a sleep related driving accident.
Principally, employers should:
- Manage the safety of their employees who drive
- Consider and implement the most suitable system of risk assessment and re-assessment for the road safety needs of the company and its employees
- Choose the right vehicle and the safest specification for the needs of the job
- Ensure that work practices, journey schedules, appointments and routes enable drivers to stay within the law
- Provide sensible guidelines about driving and for the use of the vehicles for all employees who may drive for the company
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 150mg 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. It is crucial that drivers plan journeys, especially long ones involving driving on motorways or other monotonous roads. Drivers should:
- Try to ensure they are well rested, and feeling fit and healthy, 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