TIREDNESS AT THE WHEEL

AN ESSENTIAL ROAD SAFETY GUIDE FOR UNDERSTANDING DRIVER FATIGUE

While we don’t like to think about it, road accidents claim more than a thousand lives every year. In 2019, as many as 1,738 people were killed on UK roads. And 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.

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CHAPTER 01

DRIVER FATIGUE STATISTICS

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.

Uk road accidents caused by fatigue

Fatigue and tiredness behind the wheel is one of the biggest killers on UK roads. In fact, it’s estimated as many as 300 people die each year as a result of someone falling asleep while driving.

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:

57%

of people stopped the moment they realised they might be too tired to keep driving

36%

worryingly said they felt fine when they started their drive, with their drowsiness hitting them suddenly

11%

of people were aware they were too tired when they began their journey

23%

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. While they make up just 20% of accidents on the road, people who are in this kind of collision are 50% more likely to either die or suffer from a serious injury.

Brake highlight some of the most startling figures when it comes to tiredness on the road. They found:

6am

is the time when drivers are most likely to fall asleep

20x

This is 20 times more likely than the safest time, 10pm at night

4%

of all fatal road crashes are caused by fatigue in the UK (although it’s estimated this number might be higher)

Who is most at risk?

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:

Kent

82

Devon

61

Surrey

52

Norfolk

43

Hertfordshire

37

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:

13% > 2%

of young drivers said being tired did not affect their abilities, compared to 2% of all drivers surveyed

18% > 3%

also said they were more likely to carry on driving even when fatigued, compared to just 3% of all drivers who said the same

29% > 11%

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:

Workers with rotating night shifts

Commercial drivers

People with untreated sleep disorders

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.

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CHAPTER 02

CAUSES OF DRIVING FATIGUE

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.

Medical conditions

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:

Sleep apnoea

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.

Diabetes

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.

medical condition

Depression

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.

Anxiety

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.

medical condition

Coeliac disease

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.

medical condition medical condition medical condition

Lifestyle choices

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:

Lack of sleeping pattern

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.

Drug and alcohol use

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).

running

Exercising too late

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.

Dietary choices

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.

Quick tip

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.

clock running

Work and other commitments

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.

Driving for work

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.

Inconsistent shift patterns

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.

work

Workload management

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.

Supporting your family

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.

Quick tip

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.

taxi work
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CHAPTER 03

ADVICE FOR STAYING AWAKE WHILE DRIVING

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.

Your physical health and diet

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:

Bananas

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.

Sweet potatoes

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.

eggs

Eggs

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.

Dark chocolate

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.

yog

Yoghurt

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:

Milk chocolate

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.

pizza

Pizza

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.

Cereal and milk

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.

pasta

Pasta

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 fiber and won’t cause your blood sugar levels to rapidly rise.

Hot spices

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.

bananas eggs yog pizza pasta

Getting enough rest

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:

Your sleep pattern

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.

Create a good sleeping environment

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.

corner-bed

Make your bed comfortable

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.

Don’t force sleep

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.

bed corner-bed

Staying awake on long-distance trips

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:

Stay hydrated

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.

Plan rest stops

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.

long-trip

Switch in and out

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.

Get into a good habit weeks in advance

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.

bottle long trip

Knowing when not to drive

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:

Trouble focusing

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.

Missing turnings or exits

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.

night-drive

Marginal mistakes in depth perception

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.

Constant yawning

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.

evening-drive night-drive
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CHAPTER 04

DRIVING FATIGUE AND THE LAW

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.

Penalties for sleeping at the wheel

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 can face a variety of the following penalties:

A 14 year prison sentence

A driving ban for a minimum of 2 years

Anywhere from 3-11 penalty points on your licence

Loss of your vehicle

Social and moral ramifications of your actions

Source: Roadwise

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:

Any form of sleep apnoea syndrome which causes excessive sleepiness

Narcolepsy or cataplexy

Any other condition which has caused prolonged bouts of sleepiness lasting for more than three months

Source: GOV.UK

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.

Laws on sleeping in your car

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:

You are under the influence of drugs or alcohol

You are parked illegally, or in a place which can cause a hazard to other road users

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:

  • Make sure where you’re parked is safe and out of the way of other drivers
  • Keep your car locked from the inside at all times
  • Consider opening a window slightly to allow for airflow (although this might not be the best option if you’re trying to sleep overnight)
  • Stock up on essentials like water, blankets, and even something practical like a torch if you need to see more clearly at night

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.

Your legal limits when driving for work

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).

Goods vehicles

In the case of goods vehicles, such as a car courier, lorry driver or taxi driver, your duty time (the hours of your work) is limited to a maximum of 10 hours per day – either on a public road or off-road if it’s not during your duty time.

Off-road driving counts as duty time if it’s for any of the following industries:

Agriculture

Building work

Quarrying

Civil engineering

Forestry

Regardless of whether you are on or off-road, you must never drive for more than 11 hours, other than in the case of an emergency.

Passenger-carrying vehicles

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:

30min

For at least 30 minutes after every 5 hours and 30 minutes of driving

45min

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:

When dealing with an emergency
If you drive for a total duty time of less than 4 hours per week

Source: GOV.UK

While most organisations know the rights of their drivers, this information is particularly important if you drive in a self-employed capacity.

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CHAPTER 05

SECONDARY SOURCES

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.