Fatigue and driving: a lethal mix

After being continually awake for 18 hours, your driving ability is worse than that of a drunk driver.

Get up at 7am, stay awake all day and go out in the evening, and by the time you drive home at 1am, you’re at serious risk.

Leave it till 2, 3 or 4am and it’s even worse. Your driving will be affected by lack of sleep well before you notice you’re getting tired. 

It’s not just how long you’ve been awake that matters, it’s how much sleep you had the night before

Your reactions will be slower. You’ll be less alert. If someone pulls out in front of your car, your brain just won’t process the information quickly enough – you’re less likely to brake in time and more likely to crash. And that’s assuming you don’t fall asleep entirely.

Ivan Stafford, of Leicestershire Constabulary’s Serious Collision Unit, comments: “Fatigue and falling asleep at the wheel can affect anyone. When it does happen anyone who doesn’t kill themselves, usually ends up in court because they’ve killed someone else.”

It’s not just how long you’ve been awake that matters, it’s how much sleep you had the night before. The need for sleep varies from one person to another, but eight hours is common, and a minimum of seven hours is usually needed for optimum performance. If you get less than five hours’ sleep, your driving ability will be badly affected – and if you get too little sleep night after night, the effect will build up.

There are lots of mythical remedies for feeling sleepy, from sucking lemons, to holding money out of the window or even trapping your hair in the sun roof! These are not going to stop you having an accident, and neither will cold air on your face, loud music, taking a walk or sheer willpower. There is only one really effective way to reduce sleepiness – and that’s to sleep.

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If you’re driving and you start to feel tired… 

  • Get plenty of rest before you set off.

  • Avoid alcohol before any journey - even a small amount can make you more tired.

  • Take regular and proper breaks - a 15-minute break for every two hours of driving.

  • Caffeinated drinks can help boost energy but they take 20 minutes to have an effect.

  • Avoid heavy meals before and during journeys, especially at lunch time.

  • If you can, share long journeys with another driver - alternating driving and resting.

  • If necessary, schedule an overnight stop for really long drives.


Killer facts 

  • There are two fatigue hot spots for most of us: 3am-5am and 2pm-4pm. These slots see the most fatigue-related crashes, so if you’re set for a long drive early in the afternoon, don’t assume you’re ready for it.

  • Someone with a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) above 0.08% is considered too drunk to drive. But after an 18-hour day without sleep, your driving ability is similar to that of a driver with a BAC of 0.10%: well over the legal limit.

  • There are two peaks of sleepiness: the early hours of the morning and the middle of the afternoon. For younger drivers, it’s 2am to 6am that’s the most dangerous time.

  • It’s not just heavy eyes and yawning that are signs of driver fatigue; you might feel fidgety and irritable, or find yourself daydreaming – or even see things jumping out into the road, only to realise you were imagining them. If you have any of these symptoms, stop and take a rest. You can’t fight tiredness by sheer willpower. It won’t work.