Falling asleep at the wheel
Just like drink or drugs, tiredness at the wheel is a major contributor for driving related accidents. A lack of sleep will slow your reaction time, impair your judgement and decrease your awareness of what’s going on around you, which increases your chances of having an accident. The UK Department for Transport estimates that around 10% of all road accidents are a result of driver tiredness, that’s around 10 deaths a week on UK roads.
Most drivers will at some point experience the feeling of drowsiness while behind the wheel especially if driving for long periods of time. It’s unfortunate that many people still consider driving while tired to be harmless and don’t realise that driving around in a ton of steel is like being in charge of a lethal weapon. Many drivers experience what’s known as a microsleep that occurs when you drift off for anywhere between 2 and 30 seconds without even realising the time has passed. If you are driving at 70mph on the motorway and doze off for just 3 seconds you will have travel 94 metres, which is equivalent to the length of a football pitch.
Earlier this year the Department for Transport launched a new campaign to highlight the dangers of driving while tired. The campaign is specifically aimed at those who drive for work and is intended to educate both employers and employees. It’s a common misconception that falling asleep at the wheel mainly affects long distance lorry drivers which isn’t true as they only make up a small percentage of sleep related accidents. Anyone who drives can be affected particularly those who drive for a living or who drives to and from work. With today’s busy 24 hour lifestyles many of us are working longer hours and finding less available time to sleep. In a 2005 study commissioned by the police training service, a survey of 515 officers found that Police were 3 times more likely to fall asleep at the wheel than the general population. This isn’t because Police are more dangerous on the roads than the rest of us quite the opposite, the problem lies in the shift patterns they worked and the lack of rest days they were getting.
The Warning signs of driver fatigue
Fortunately when you are tired your body tends to give you warning signs which if you act on could prevent you from falling asleep behind the wheel and having an accident. The signs of tiredness that you need to look out for are:
- Repeatedly yawning
- Have difficulty keeping your eyes open
- Your neck muscles relaxing which makes your head droop
- You have forgotten the last few miles of your journey, or where you have driven from
- You keep drifting from your lane
- You drive over a rumble strip
- You have difficulty concentrating on the road
- You narrowly avoid having an accident
- You drive through a red light
- You keep getting too close to the driver in front
Myths to combat tiredness
There are many ways that people try to keep themselves awake when they start to feel tired; the problem with these tactics is that most of them don’t actually work. Some of the most popular methods used to combat tiredness are:
- Winding down the window or turn on the air conditioning
- Turning the music up loud
- Singing or talking to yourself
- Splashing water on your face
- Slapping your face
- Pinching yourself
Others think that because they are safe drivers or young they don’t need as much sleep as the rest of us. The bottom line is whether you are 18 or 82 unless a driver is fully alert when behind the wheel they shouldn’t be driving.
Many drivers are also unaware that over the counter medication can cause drowsiness. If you are suffering from a cold, hay fever or an allergy and take some of the tablets or medicine which is commonly available over the counter at your local chemist, you could be significantly increasing your chances of falling asleep at the wheel. Its good practice to ask advice from your pharmacist or read the label of any medication you may be taking before setting out on a long journey. There are usually alternative forms of non-sedating medication that do not cause drowsiness and are much safer to take.
Ways to prevent tiredness
If you intend to travel on a long journey the most important thing to do before you leave is get a good night sleep. For many people the night before their journey involves a late night of packing or last minute preparation which leaves little time for sleep and consequently puts them at a higher risk of dozing on their journey. The proven methods of reducing the risk of sleeping at the wheel are:
- Get a good nights sleep before a long journey
- Set realistic goals for your journey
- Plan extra time into your schedule for breaks on your journey. Try to take a 15 minute break every 2 hours or 100 miles even if you don’t need a fuel stop.
- Stop driving if you feel sleepy
- Avoid medication that may cause drowsiness
- Have a passenger that will stay awake in the front seat to talk to you and keep an eye on you. If they can drive you can swap positions when you start to feel tired.
- If you do feel tired find a safe well lit spot to pullover then lock your windows and doors. If you can drink a cup of coffee or caffeinated drink then take a 20 minute nap and set your alarm so you don’t oversleep if you need to. It takes caffeine about 30 minutes to enter your blood stream, so when you wake it should start to take effect. A short 20-minute nap can sometimes be enough to keep you going for a few hours.
- If you still feel sleepy find the nearest hotel to get some sleep, the best cure for sleep deprivation is sleep itself.
- Avoid fatty and carbohydrate rich foods that can make you sleepy as they send all the blood to your stomach to digest the food. If you are hungry try to stick to protein rich foods.
- Turn down the heating in your car, a cool temperature will help to keep you more alert
- Although coffee is good in small quantities and may help to make you more alert, don’t drink too much caffeine as it will have the reverse effect and you will end up feeling restless and jittery.
- Stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of cold water
Many motorists claim to be put off from stopping at service stations because of the high prices charged and will therefore carry on driving for as long as they can rather than stop. Unfortunately there is no higher price than your life and that’s exactly what you are risking when you ignore the signs of tiredness, so next time you feel tired please pull over.