Sleep deprivation and driver fatigue

Imagine travelling 111m down a road at 100km per hour while completely unconscious. You’re blind, powerless, completely out of control. It sounds more like a nightmare than a reality, but it’s a reality that can occur easily if you nod off for only four seconds behind the wheel. And if you were to crash at that speed? You’d most likely suffer severe injury or die. Which is what approximately 300 sleep deprived Victorians do each year (with 50 of that number dying).

Driver fatigue causes approximately 20% of road fatalities, according to Vic Roads Road Accident Facts, with a staggering 30% of severe single-vehicle crashes in rural areas involving driver fatigue. In fact, the more severe the crash, the more likely it is due to fatigue.

Fatigue is defined as extreme tiredness brought about by a lack of sleep over a period of time. It can be brought about by either mental or physical exertion or illness.

Driver fatigue is not usually caused by driving for too long, which is an important distinction to make. It is what you do - or don’t do - before you get behind the wheel that matters most. And if you don’t get enough sleep regularly, you could be in serious trouble when you next hit the road.

Symptoms of fatigue include heavy eyes, yawning, impatience, impaired reaction times and driver performance, daydreaming, a lack of motivation and an inability to keep the same vehicle speed.

If your sleepless nights are causing you fatigue, your ability to drive well can be greatly impaired through decreased reaction times, poor judgement, a lack of alertness and concentration. This can result in errors in calculating speed and distance and the dreaded micro-sleeps – a silent killer on the roads.

Avoiding driver fatigue (tip: get a good night’s sleep)

If you’re planning a long trip, the most important thing you can do is get a good night’s sleep beforehand and make sure you don’t have a nasty sleep debt caused by ongoing sleep problems.

While driving, remember to take regular breaks at least every two hours and never drive for more than 8 to 10 hours a day. Avoid drinking alcohol - even the smallest amount can greatly increase your levels of sleepiness and fatigue.

The time-of-day is also important if you want to avoid driver fatigue. Never drive throughout the night (unless you’re a seasoned shift worker) as your body clock will expect to be sleeping at this time.

If, while driving, you can feel your levels of sleepiness increasing, stop and take a power nap, even if it’s just for 15 minutes.

Individuals that get behind the wheel after having no sleep for a mere 17 hours have the same driving ability as those with a blood alcohol concentration of .5, which is over the legal limit. Go without sleep for a day and the effect is double.

Sleep apnoea & insomnia

Sleep apnoea is a common cause of sleepiness and fatigue and affects approximately 15% of adults. Consequently, sufferers of this condition are at a greater risk of road traffic accidents. Symptoms of sleep apnoea include being constantly tired and struggling to stay awake throughout the day, while at night, you sleep restlessly, snore and have pauses in your breath from anywhere from 10 seconds to well over a minute. Fortunately, there are many treatment options available, so if you feel that you may have sleep apnoea, talk to your doctor.

If you suffer from insomnia you will, naturally, be sleep deprived and potentially be a danger behind the wheel. Sleep issues are a serious concern, not just for your mental and physical well-being, but for others if you are on the road. If you feel your sleep habits are a concern, take a close look at your sleep hygiene habits or better still, speak to your doctor if symptoms persist.

Mattress & Pillow Science - the healthy sleep specialists.