While we don't like to think about it, road accidents claim more than a thousand lives every year. In 2022, government reports confirmed reported road casualties showed a return to pre-pandemic trends, with an estimated 1,695 fatalities and 29,795 killed or seriously injured (KSI) casualties. Pre-pandemic, in 2019, 1,738 people were killed on UK roads.
And it's not just a UK problem. Globally, approximately 1.3 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes, and road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5-29 years, according to The World Health Organization.
While some accidents are not preventable, the true tragedy is the number of lives lost every year as a result of crashes which could have been avoided.
Tiredness at the wheel, or driving fatigue, is one such example. Most people are fairly confident in their driving abilities. It’s for that reason a lot of us will take to the roads, even when we really aren’t awake enough to properly focus.
In this guide we’re going to look at driving fatigue in detail, highlighting the causes as well as the preventative measures you can take to drastically reduce your chances of having an accident while tired.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at some of the key statistics for fatigued driving on UK roads. Whether you’re a new or experienced driver, the numbers show everyone can fall victim to this overlooked killer.
Fatigue and tiredness behind the wheel is one of the biggest killers on our roads. And while it's tricky to calculate the exact number of sleep or fatigue-related accidents, research highlighted by The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) shows that driver fatigue may be a contributory factor in up to 20% of road accidents, and up to one quarter of fatal and serious accidents.
What's more, crashes involving sleep are about 50% more likely to result in death or serious injury because they often happen at high-speed impacts, as the asleep driver cannot brake or swerve to avoid or reduce the impact.
The AA Charitable Trust has looked in detail at the numbers, conducting a survey of 20,561 drivers to discover how fatigue really translates onto UK roads. Shockingly, they found as many as 13% (2,673 people) had fallen asleep while driving at some point in their lives.
They also discovered as many as 37% felt so tired while they were driving, they worried they wouldn’t be able to stay awake for the whole journey. The survey would go on to discover:
of people stopped the moment they realised they might be too tired to keep driving
worryingly said they felt fine when they started their drive, with their drowsiness hitting them suddenly
of people were aware they were too tired when they began their journey
said they had been driving for more than two hours without a break when they were hit by fatigue
The National Sleep Foundation emphasise just how dangerous driving when you’re sleep-deprived can be. They report that driving when awake for 18 hours has the same impact on the brain as someone with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%. Meanwhile, driving after 24 hours awake equates to 0.10%.
While these numbers might sound low, the legal limit throughout most of the UK is 0.08%, while in Scotland it’s just 0.05%. When you think about it in that context, the numbers are a little scary. And what’s more, even a momentary lack of control over your vehicle can have potentially catastrophic consequences.
The Transport Accident Commission of Australia calculated that falling asleep for only four seconds while travelling at 62mph would see you travel 111m completely lacking control of your vehicle. To put that figure in some perspective, an average football pitch in the UK is 105m in length. It’s this lack of control that often makes collisions caused by fatigue all the more deadly.
Brake highlight some of the most startling figures when it comes to tiredness on the road. They found:
is the time when drivers are most likely to fall asleep
This is 20 times more likely than the safest time, 10pm at night
of all fatal road crashes are caused by fatigue in the UK (although it’s estimated this number might be higher)
In recent attempts to make it easier to legislate against drowsy drivers or their employers – and make the roads a safer place – research into blood-based tests has started in Australia. Prof Clare Anderson, at Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia, who is leading efforts to develop a blood-based test, told the Guardian: “When you look at the major killers on the road, alcohol is one of them, speeding is another, and fatigue is one of them. But even though the solution to fatigue is quite simple, which is to get more sleep, our capacity to manage it is impaired because we don’t have tools to be able to monitor it like we do with alcohol.” Her team has discovered biomarkers in blood which can detect whether a person has been awake for 24 hours or more, and a test could be ready for us within two years.
Many experts agree that legislation – supported by a blood test to measure whether a driver who has caused an accident was impaired by lack of sleep – could help efforts to reduce deaths from drowsy driving.
Just as with anything that involves driving, certain groups and even regions are more prone to falling victim to driving fatigue. Motor1 conducted their own research, finding that drivers in Kent were the most likely to have an accident as a result of tiredness.
The results showed the five counties of the UK which were most at risk of fatigue-related crashes:
The AA found that young drivers (aged 18-24) were arguably the most at risk of having an accident while behind the wheel. In most cases, this was as a result of overconfidence, rather than a lack of ability. Findings showed:
of young drivers said being tired did not affect their abilities, compared to 2% of all drivers surveyed
also said they were more likely to carry on driving even when fatigued, compared to just 3% of all drivers who said the same
said they were tired at the beginning of their journey, but carried on regardless – a lot more than the 11% of all people surveyed
They also found that men were more than three times as likely to drive when tired compared to women, with figures showing 17% of males and 5% of females driving when already feeling exhausted.
Other groups of drivers who may regularly fall victim to driving fatigue included:
And while these particular people might be the most at risk, it’s important to remember that anyone can be affected by tiredness on the road. Regardless of age, gender or experience, it’s important everyone gets the right amount of rest.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many professional drivers experience increased levels of sleepiness and, according to ROSPA, are involved in a disproportionately high number of fatigue-related accidents, with around 40% of sleep-related accidents involving commercial drivers. This includes HGV drivers and car drivers (e.g. delivery workers).
But it’s not just people who drive for work who experience the effects of a tiring day. More recently, there’s been a focus on medical professionals and the lack of sleep they get. Indeed, a study reported by ROSPA discovered that amongst 2,170 trainee anaesthetists in the UK:
And while these particular people might be the most at risk, it’s important to remember that anyone can be affected by tiredness on the road. In fact, 81% of UK workers don’t feel as though they get enough sleep, with 63% of workers who drive as part of their commute admitting they drive whilst drowsy at least a few times a month. So regardless of age, gender, or experience, getting the right amount of rest is a challenge for all drivers.
Just as with most physical conditions in life, driving fatigue can be caused by a number of both preventable and unpreventable factors. In the case of the latter, it makes it a lot harder to fight – but there are always steps you can take to help.
There are loads of different conditions which can make a person feel tired, even when they aren’t exerting much energy themselves. These make driving a challenge, as it’s hard to ever stay fully focused. Some of the most common include:
This medical condition causes your throat to narrow as you sleep, making it a lot harder for you to breathe at night. This results in disturbed sleep and lowered blood oxygen levels. The net result is an extremely fatigued feeling throughout the day, as your body hasn’t been able to get the right amount of rest.
A sudden increase in your blood sugar levels might sound like it will wake you up, but it actually makes it harder for your body to process glucose correctly. This can cause fatigue, along with other issues like losing weight, needing to pee a lot, or constantly feeling thirsty.
While it’s more of a psychological condition, depression can have a direct impact on your physical health as well. It’s not uncommon for your sleep patterns to get totally disrupted, or for your energy levels to drastically drop. Both are going to make you feel a lot more lethargic during the day.
Likewise, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) can leave a person feeling mentally exhausted. A lot of people with GAD often find themselves going over worries in their heads when they’re trying to sleep, which results in an inability to drop off. This can have a huge impact on the amount of sleep they end up receiving.
This disease is caused by your immune system reacting poorly to the processing of gluten. It is believed that as many as 1 in 100 people in the UK are in some way affected by the condition. As well as tiredness, people often experience diarrhoea, bloating and weight loss.
If you have a medical condition which causes sleepiness or impacts your ability to drive in any way, you must tell the DVLA.
By contrast, some lifestyle choices can also be a cause of tiredness. While these can’t be rectified in an instant, there are more concrete steps you can take to reduce their chance of causing you risk. These choices most commonly include:
We all hated being given a set bedtime as a kid, but none of us really realised just how handy it was getting our bodies into a regular sleep routine. If you’re someone who’s fallen out of the habit of getting up and going to bed at the same time each night, you might find that you’re losing hours of sleep. And recent studies have found if you have less than five hours of sleep, you’re just as likely to have a vehicle crash as if you were over the legal limit for alcohol. The likelihood of you having a crash is almost doubled.
Even casual use of substances like these can have a big impact on how much sleep we’re getting. Both make it harder for our bodies to regulate sleep, with alcohol in particular often causing us to wake up earlier than normal.
This happens when the alcohol itself starts to wear off, causing our bodies to enter REM sleep at the wrong time (a much easier form of sleep to wake up from).
While exercising in the middle of the day will often help promote healthy sleep patterns, doing it in the evening can actually have the opposite effect. Our bodies don’t want to be producing too much adrenaline before bed, as the hormone is likely to keep us alert and energised.
Consuming food that’s high in caffeine or sugar directly before you try to sleep is also a bad idea. This will also give you a shot of adrenaline, making it nearly impossible to drop off at a time when we should be resting.
While it’s hard to magically fix these things, it’s not impossible when you sit down and really take the time to work on them. Try discussing it with a person you trust, as well as creating a scheduled sleeping routine if you’re someone who struggles with self-discipline.
And then there are those causes of fatigue which fall somewhere in the middle. While these factors are technically things you could avoid doing, realistically they’re also a pretty integral part of your life.
If your job explicitly requires you to drive long distances for a living, it’s only natural you’ll find yourself in a position where you might start to feel tired. This is something which should be planned out and discussed with you before you’re given your working schedule.
Some jobs require people to work odd, often extreme, hours. When that happens, it can be impossible for our sleep patterns to find any sort of consistency. This can be a real nightmare for anyone wanting to get up and go to bed at roughly the same time every day.
Whether you’re in full-time employment or a student, your workload can often mount up to the point where you need to work into the night to get everything finished. This can majorly cut into time when you should be resting. What’s more, the anxiety of dealing with high-pressure work can then make it harder to sleep when you are eventually finished.
While this is ultimately quite enjoyable and rewarding, it doesn’t mean you won’t lose a lot of sleep. This is especially true when you have a newborn to care for. Younger kids often wake up at odd hours of the night.
If you find you’re really struggling to balance your sleep and your work, it never hurts to have a discussion with your work about it. It’s their duty to make sure your mental and physical health is taken into account. The Health and Safety Executive’s Driving at Work guidelines state that "health and safety law applies to work activities on the road in the same way as it does to all work activities.” As a result, employers need to manage the risks to drivers as part of their health and safety arrangements. This doesn’t apply to commuting, but it does apply to any other work-related driving (e.g. driving to a location where employees wouldn’t normally work).
Just as with most physical conditions in life, driving fatigue can be caused by a number of both preventable and unpreventable factors. In the case of the latter, it makes it a lot harder to fight – but there are always steps you can take to help.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to guarantee your body is getting the right types of nutrients is by taking a good look at your diet. Just as your car needs the right kind of fuel to function properly, so too do you. Some of the best foods for boosting your energy levels are things like:
Having a banana first thing in the morning can be great for your productivity and energy levels. They’re high in a number of essential substances, such as complex carbohydrates, potassium, and vitamin B6 – which all provide you with a healthy amount of energy to get through the day.
Despite their name, sweet potatoes are actually much healthier for you than the common variant. They contain plenty of vitamin A and, thanks to their high levels of fibre, are perfect for slowly releasing energy in a healthy, continuous manner.
The amino acids and protein levels found in eggs have been proven to stimulate energy production. They help you take in more blood sugar, trigger the production of energy in your cells, and even increase the rate at which fat is broken down to create energy.
While it might sound like an unhealthy treat, the high levels of cocoa found in dark chocolate actually help to increase blood flow through the body and send oxygen to the brain and muscles. The direct result of that is far greater levels of energy to help you go about your day.
The lactose and galactose found in yoghurts are great when broken down, as they provide a constant and steady flow of energy throughout the day.
By contrast, some food can cause long-term sleeping problems, particularly if you’re consuming it directly before you go to bed. Some of the worst offenders in this category are things like:
Unlike its darker cousin, milk chocolate contains higher levels of sugar and more saturated fats. Both of these have been proven to have a negative impact on your levels of deep sleep, and they can make you wake up more during the night.
With cheese which is high in fat and tomatoes which contain a lot of acid, it’s perhaps no surprise pizza is another food that you should avoid consuming right before bed. We’ve already looked at how fat can affect your sleep, but the acidic nature of the tomato is also likely to cause digestive problems like heartburn.
This is a great option first thing in the morning, but not so much at night. The sugar you’ll find in most cereal will cause your body’s fat storage to kick into overdrive during the night, when it should be relatively stable.
In a similar fashion, pasta will also trigger this fat storage system. A good alternative to regular forms of pasta is the whole-wheat variety. These contain more complex carbs, which are higher in fibre and won’t cause your blood sugar levels to rapidly rise.
Eating spicy food right before you go to bed will cause your internal temperature to rise. This is actually the complete reverse of what your body should be doing when you try to rest. As such, it can be really hard to drop off.
While it might be the most obvious factor, falling asleep at the right time every night isn’t as easy as it sounds. That’s especially true if you’re someone who suffers from conditions like insomnia. If you regularly struggle to drop off, think about utilising some of these tried and tested techniques:
In case you hadn’t gotten the message yet, having a regular sleep routine is vital to helping your body properly recharge before driving. By waking up and falling asleep at the same time each day, your body will be able to automatically work out when it’s time to start releasing energy.
It can be hard to get into this kind of rhythm. It won’t be an instant thing, with it probably taking a few nights before you start to find yourself dropping off at any kind of consistent time.
The human body is a delicate thing. You need to make sure your bedroom is set up in such a way that’s conducive to falling asleep more easily. That means thinking about factors like temperature, light levels and any ambient noises.
This sounds obvious, but it goes beyond simple things like the softness of your sheets. You also need to find out what type of mattress is best for your needs, as well as which one fits your bed properly.
If you’re lying in bed at night and really can’t fall asleep, it can actually be beneficial to get up and do something else. Reading a book or even writing something are both great ways to pass the time as your body starts to wind down. We wouldn’t advise using a screen though, as blue light given off by digital devices can wake you up.
On long-distance road trips, the chances of finding yourself fatigued are bound to increase. You’re going to be on the road for a lot longer, so even if you start out feeling fine your energy levels are likely to begin dipping. Some of the best advice for managing this include:
While it might be tempting to stock up on highly caffeinated drinks like coffee, you need to make sure you’re also getting plenty of water. While coffee will give you a brief buzz, it’s a diuretic – meaning it will dehydrate you. This can be a major factor for concentration and fatigue levels.
Make sure you pick out plenty of stops along the way. Ideally, these should be no more than 2-3 hours apart. You don’t have to stop for too long. Even 30 minutes should be enough to give your mind a quick break before you get back on the road again.
If your trip is particularly long, it would make sense to swap shifts with at least one other driver. Halving the load will make things much easier for both of you. In fact, the more the merrier when it comes to driver shifts. This eases the load for everyone and greatly reduces the chance of tiredness becoming a factor.
If you’re worried about not getting enough sleep in the build-up to your trip, consider working yourself into a good sleep pattern weeks before you’re set to head off. While it might be a struggle at first, your body will eventually begin to naturally adapt to your new sleep time.
If all else fails, it’s important you have a strong understanding of your own body and its capabilities. Here are some key points to keep in mind when you’re assessing your ability to properly focus:
Are you finding your mind slowly starting to drift towards things other than driving? While it’s okay for your brain to wander somewhat, you ultimately need to stay as focused as possible on the task at hand – the road ahead of you.
This is not only a nuisance, but also a sign that your brain isn’t quite functioning at full capacity. While missing one turn or exit isn’t a cause for instant alarm, you might want to reconsider staying behind the wheel if it begins to become commonplace on a drive.
If you find yourself getting a little too close to the curb, or even other vehicles, it’s another way your brain is telling you that you should probably recharge. Whether it’s because you’re actually drifting to sleep or just struggling to concentrate, neither are great.
Perhaps the most obvious sign you’re too tired to be driving is if you actually feel like you need to sleep. While this can sometimes be a subconscious urge, on occasion we know ourselves that it’s time to rest. You shouldn’t drive if you feel that way, no matter how important your journey is.
If you notice any of these factors are starting to occur as you drive, stop immediately. Never run the risk with something as important as your life.
Just as the consumption of alcohol and other illegal substances will see you slapped with a penalty and fine, so too can driving when dangerously fatigued. While it’s harder to outright prove, if you have an accident that was a direct result of tiredness, you can be severely punished.
Falling asleep behind the wheel is classified as dangerous driving, meaning you’re liable to face serious prosecution if it’s proven that you’ve done so. The nature of the penalty will be dependent on the severity of any accidents caused.
It’s certainly not out of the question to suggest that any incident caused as a result of reckless driving could easily result in the death of another road user. If this is the case, the driver who fell asleep could face penalties, including prison sentences and driving bans.
To recognize the different levels of seriousness within motoring crime, the Sentencing Council has produced three levels of seriousness in relation to the charge of causing death by dangerous driving.
Driving when knowingly deprived of adequate sleep or rest is defined as Level 3 (driving that creates a significant risk of danger, as opposed to driving that involves a deliberate decision to ignore the rules of the road – Level 1). It could lead to between two and five years’ imprisonment, but the sentence could be shorter if there are any mitigating factors or longer if there are any aggravating factors. Examples include:
|Mitigating factors||Aggravating factors|
|Actions of the victim or a third party contributed significantly to the likelihood of a collision occurring and/or death resulting||Previous convictions for motoring offences|
|The offender was seriously injured in the collision||More than one person killed|
|Mental illness or disability||Driving off in an attempt to avoid apprehension|
It’s certainly not out of the question to suggest that any incident caused as a result of reckless driving could easily result in the death of another road user. If this is the case, the driver who fell asleep can face a variety of the following penalties:
You are also liable to face a fine of up to £1,000 if you have a medical condition that affects your ability to drive, but which you haven’t reported to the DVLA. The conditions which are included under this umbrella are:
If you’re really not sure if you need to report your condition, don’t take a chance. Get in contact with the DVLA and talk them through it. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
While it might not be something that instantly grabs you as an obvious offence, there are times when sleeping in your car can see you land in hot water with the law.
This will totally depend on your location and personal condition. For example, it is illegal to sleep in your car (even when the engine is turned off) if:
However, if your car has been left somewhere legal and out of the way, or you’re completely sober, it’s perfectly okay to pull over and rest. Some advice for sleeping inside your car includes:
Never be afraid to safely take yourself off the road and recharge your internal batteries. As long as you follow this advice, you should be perfectly safe.
If you drive for a living there are strict sanctions in place to ensure you don’t overexert yourself. These will differ depending on whether your job involves driving multiple people (passenger-carrying), or just yourself (a goods vehicle).
In the case of goods vehicles, such as a car courier, lorry driver or taxi driver, your duty time (the hours of your work) will have limits, but they vary depending on the vehicle you’re driving, and where to and from. For example, drivers of vehicles over 3.5 tonnes are limited to a maximum of 9 hours per day (extended to 10 twice a week). Be sure to review the rules which apply to your type of vehicle and work, or ask your employer for further advice.
Things are a little different for these kinds of drivers. You’ll also find a limit of 10 hours of work in a day, but you’ll also need to take a variety of breaks and rest periods into account as well.
Breaks must be taken:
For at least 30 minutes after every 5 hours and 30 minutes of driving
For at least 45 minutes within any period of 8 hours and 30 minutes
Between the first and last duty of your working week, you must have taken a combined rest of at least 10 hours. You must also take at least a 10-hour break between the start and end of a new working day.
Finally, in a two-week working period, you need to have taken a combined 24 hours off duty. The only exemptions to these rules are:
While most organisations know the rights of their drivers, this information is particularly important if you drive in a self-employed capacity.
We’ve covered a lot in this guide, but you may still want to find out more about driving when dangerously fatigued. If so, be sure to check out our handy list of secondary materials.