Health & Safety

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Driver Fatigue and Road Accidents

3 November 2017

Fatigue is a major contributory factor in crashes in the UK, with too little sleep radically affecting driver attention, awareness, reaction time and ability to control the vehicle.

Driver fatigue is a serious problem resulting in many thousands of road accidents each year. It is not possible to calculate the exact number of sleep related accidents but research 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.

These types of crashes are about 50% more likely to result in death or serious injury as they tend to be high speed impacts because a driver who has fallen asleep cannot brake or swerve to avoid or reduce the impact.

About 40% of sleep-related accidents involve commercial vehicles, drivers, often in the largest vehicles on our roads that can cause the most harm in a crash.

Sleepiness reduces reaction time (a critical element of safe driving). It also reduces vigilance, alertness and concentration so that the ability to perform attention-based activities (such as driving) is impaired. The speed at which information is processed is also reduced by sleepiness. The quality of decision-making may also be affected.

Experts tell us that it is clear that drivers are aware when they are feeling sleepy, and so make a conscious decision about whether to continue driving or to stop for a rest. It may be that those who persist in driving underestimate the risk of actually falling asleep while driving. Or it may be that some drivers choose to ignore the risks (in the way that drink drivers do). Studies have shown that drivers don’t fall asleep without warning. Drivers who fall asleep at the wheel have often tried to fight off drowsiness by opening a window, or by turning up the radio. This doesn't work for long.

Signs of fatigue

Research shows normal sleep does not occur without warning, and most people recognise symptoms but underestimate the dangers of continuing to drive. Warning signs include:

  • Increased difficulty concentrating;
  • Yawning;
  • Heavy eyelids;
  • Eyes starting to ‘roll’;
  • Neck muscles relaxing, making the head droop.
  • ‘Microsleep’ occurs when someone nods off for a few seconds without realising orremembering it, known as head-nodding. This occurs when drivers are tired but trying to stay awake, a ‘THINK’ survey found one in three (31%) UK drivers surveyed admit having experienced a microsleep at the wheel. The driver may feel like they’ve just briefly nodded their head, but they have actually been asleep. In six seconds, a vehicle being driven at 70mph travels about 200 metres!

The key facts

  • Research suggests that almost 20%, 1 in 5 of crashes resulting in death on major roads are sleep or fatigue-related.
  • Sleep-related accidents are more likely than others to result in a fatality or serious injury.
  • Peak times for accidents are in the early hours between 2am and 6am and after lunch 2pmand 4pm.
  • About 40% of sleep-related accidents involve commercial vehicles, drivers, often in the largest vehicles on our roads that can cause the most harm in a crash.
  • Research has shown motorways and dual carriageways are the most common roads forsleep-related crashes, due to the monotonous road environment and lack of interruptions or driver stimulation.

Crashes caused by tired drivers are most likely to happen:

  • On long journeys on monotonous roads, such as motorways.
  • After having less sleep than normal.
  • After drinking alcohol – (remembering the morning after effect).
  • If taking medicines that cause drowsiness.
  • After long working hours or on journeys home after long shifts, especially night shifts'.

‘THINK!’, ‘Brake’ and ‘RoSPA’ Advice

  • Plan your journey to include a 15-minute break every two hours.
  • Don't start a long trip if you're already tired.
  • Remember the risks if you have to get up unusually early to start a long drive.
  • Try to avoid long trips between midnight and 6am when you're likely to feel sleepy anyway.
  • If you start to feel sleepy, find a safe place to stop - not the hard shoulder of a motorway. Drink two cups of coffee or a high-caffeine drink and have a rest or nap for 15 minutes to allow time for the caffeine to kick in.
  • Remember, the only real cure for sleepiness is proper sleep. A caffeine drink or a nap is a short-term solution that will only allow you to keep driving for a short time.

Legislation on fatigue - Police investigations and penalties for killing someone due to fatigue-related driving:

A tired driver who kills someone can be charged with death by dangerous driving (if the nature of their driving was perceived to be dangerous) or death by careless driving (a lesser charge for less dangerous driving). The maximum penalty for death by dangerous driving is 14 years imprisonment and the maximum penalty for death by careless driving is five years. The difference between 'careless' and 'dangerous' driving in the eyes of the law is slight and subjective: it's the difference between someone's driving falling below or well below what is expected of a careful and competent driver.

Commercial Vehicle Legislation

In the UK companies operating fleets of vehicles have a legal duty of care to “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of all employees while at work” and are responsible for what might happen if this is not done. This “applies to all on-the-road work activities as to all work activities”. Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999) employers must assess the risks involved in staff use of the road for work and put in place all reasonably practical measures to manage driver fatigue. Employers need to assess which drivers and journeys are at risk and set schedules that do not require drivers to exceed recommended working limits and driver hours laws.

Professional drivers of goods and passenger road vehicles must comply with the UK and EU Drivers Hours Rules or regulations which limit time at the wheel and specify that Drivers must legally take breaks. Heavy commercial vehicles have a tachograph, which records how long they have been driving and breaks taken. This information, along with any available telematics information from event data recorders, can be studied by Police if the vehicle is involved in a crash. Light Commercial Van Drivers are covered by the GB Domestics Drivers Hours Rules and Limits. These rules restrict a driving day to ten hours with a 30 minute break after 5.5 hours’ driving, or 45 minutes taken at times within an 8.5 hour driving shift.

It is vitally important that drivers should always:

  • Try to ensure they are well rested, and feeling fit and healthy before driving,
  • Not take medication which advises against driving before starting long journeys,
  • Make sure they take their rest breaks,
  • Take extra care when driving at night, especially between 2am and 6am and when driving between 2pm and 4pm (especially after having eaten a significant meal),
  • Avoid drinking any alcohol and remember the morning after effect,
  • If feeling sleepy or drowsy during a journey, take a break, grab a coffee and if need be takea short nap.
  • Have regular eye tests or arrange a test if they’ve noticed any problems with their eyesight, (do the self-test of reading a number plate from 20 metres),
  • If they have stress issues, request a stress risk assessment and request ‘feeling first class’ support,
  • Make sure they are aware of health conditions that may impair their driving and if unsure consult their GP.
  • If they take any medication that may be affecting their ability to drive, speak to their GP,
  • If they have a sleep disorder which may put them at higher risk, discuss it with their GP.

This information has been compiled in conjunction with “Think” – the Government Road Safety Information and Guidance Organisation, “Brake” the Road Safety Charity, “RoSPA” the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents Charity” and the “DfT”. It is being issued in conjunction with the Joint Royal Mail Group/CWU/Unite CMA Road Safety Communications Campaign Week, September 2017.