We’ve all read the signs warning us that tiredness kills, but how many of us have actually fallen asleep at the wheel? Motorists are reluctant to admit that they have nodded off while driving, but research suggests that about 20% of accidents on major roads are caused by fatigue. That’s not all. Accidents caused by drowsiness are more likely to result in fatalities because the sleeping motorist does not apply the brakes or try to avoid a collision, so the impact is usually worse.
Lifestyle hazardsModern lifestyles are putting more of us at risk of drowsiness, according to some studies. We spend a lot of time in front of computer screens, so our eyes are often tired. We also tend to travel greater distances these days, particularly people who drive for a living such as HGV and coach drivers. Shift work can also upset our sleeping patterns, causing fatigue. Then there are the cars we drive. They are smoother, quieter and warmer than vehicles in the past thanks to modern technology. And what about cruise control? It’s tempting for today’s motorist just to sit back and enjoy the ride – and a nap. Business drivers are more at risk than other road users because they cover more miles, often on monotonous roads – about 40% of sleep-related accidents involve commercial vehicles. But there are other risk factors.
Dangerous timesThere is a particular threat of drowsiness if you drive at certain times of the day because of changes in the body’s rhythm. The early hours of the morning are risky, between the hours of midnight and 6am. Driving after lunch is another potential hazard, particularly if you have drunk alcohol. Of course, no one should drink and drive, but alcohol in the afternoon can have a more soporific effect than the same amount consumed in the evening. Some medicines can cause drowsiness, too. So you should always check the label if you intend to drive, even if you bought the medication over the counter. The fact that you took a prescription medicine will not be a defence if you are prosecuted for being under the influence of a drug.
Sleep disordersAn estimated 700,000 people suffer from a condition called sleep apnoea, which interrupts normal sleep patterns and causes acute fatigue during the day. Sleep apnoea can be extremely dangerous if you are behind the wheel of a car, but many people do not even realise they suffer from the condition. However, sleep apnoea can be cured, so it is important to seek medical advice if you are at all worried. There are two types of sleep apnoea: obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) and central sleep apnoea. OSA is the most common and sufferers experience interrupted breathing while they are asleep, caused by excessive relaxation of the muscles around the throat. The main symptoms of OSA are snoring and severe daytime sleepiness. Men are more likely to suffer from the condition than women, but age and weight are other possible indicators. A typical sufferer is a middle-aged man who is overweight and takes a size 17 collar or more. Contributory factors also include smoking, evening alcohol and the menopause. If you are diagnosed with sleep apnoea, the DVLA insists that you stop driving completely until the symptoms have been controlled. HGV licence holders must also have ongoing treatment for the condition.
Drowsiness and the lawFalling asleep behind the wheel is dangerous, whatever the reason. It is also no excuse in law if you cause an accident. If the crash results in a fatality, the driver can be charged with death by dangerous driving with a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. Not only that, when it comes to purchasing your car insurance you may find it difficult to get any cover at all. Even if you can, you will more than likely find that the premium will significantly increase To minimise the risk of falling asleep at the wheel and endangering your own life and that of other road users, here are some simple tips:
- Plan your journey to include a 15-minute break every two hours.
- Don't start a long trip if you are already tired.
- Try to avoid setting off on a long journey between midnight and 6am.
- Opening a window or putting on the radio can offer temporary relief.
- Take a break if you feel drowsy. But bear in mind that the hard shoulder of the motorway is not a safe place to stop.
- Drink two cups of coffee or a high-caffeine drink and rest for 15 minutes or so to allow time for the caffeine to kick in.