Driver fatigue: When is it not safe to drive?

13 December


Driving can be risky business at the best of times, so when you add tiredness and fatigue on top of that, hazards increase

Research indicates that tiredness contributes to road traffic accidents occurring in as many as 20% of cases. It’s also harrowing to note that these types of collisions are much more likely (around 50%) to result in death or serious injury, due to the driver’s inability to brake or react in time.

What’s more, most of these drivers do not fall asleep without warning, but attempt to keep themselves awake for extended periods. This means that any collision that occurs from fatigue could be entirely avoided if the driver chose to rest, instead of continuing their journey.

Due to our busy, modern-day schedules, driving has become a necessity for many of us, especially those who drive as all, or part, of their job. In fact, it’s men under 30 who are most like to fall asleep at the wheel.

The reality is that, at some point, many of us will have driven when we were too fatigued. With late nights, early mornings, and shift pattern changes, it can be hard to determine if you are in an appropriate condition to take to the roads.

So, when exactly is it not safe to drive and what precautions should we be taking?

Causes of driver fatigue

Certain medical conditions can cause excessive sleepiness during times you would normally be awake, such as sleep apnoea or diabetes. Failure to inform the DVLA of these conditions could lead to a hefty fine or even prosecution if you have an accident as an effect of your condition.

Sleep apnoea is more common in men, with statistics stating that at least four in every 100 men suffer from the condition. Long distance drivers who have the condition, particularly those in lorries or buses, put themselves (and others) at great risk, due to the repetitive nature of their work.

If you’re a driver, it’s your responsibility to make your employer and the DVLA aware of any conditions that could cause fatigue when driving, such as epilepsy, glaucoma, sight problems, Parkinson’s disease, or a history of strokes. Similarly, if you’re a fleet manager, encouraging your drivers to be open and honest about their conditions, without fear of reprisal, is important.

Other causes of driver fatigue, unrelated to the medical conditions mentioned above, include:

  • Taking medications that are known to cause drowsiness
  • Committing to a lot of night shifts, as well as day shifts

As a long distance driver, if you feel your employer is having you work excessively long shifts, make sure you know your rights, as well as the law. Similarly, if you’re a fleet manager, ensure your drivers aren’t overworked or fatigued, especially if they’ve been picking up extra hours. Monitoring this effectively is an important part of keeping the dialogue open and honest between you and your staff.

When a work-related social event comes around, make sure you’re a responsible employer and don’t arrange for a time when most people are in the next day. Giving people the morning or day off will allow your employees time to recover, as well as giving you peace of mind that no one is risking an unnecessary journey to work.

As an employee, take responsibility for your actions by ensuring you have the day off to enjoy your night or designate yourself as the driver for the evening. This will leave you with a fresh head the next day, as well as knowing you and your friends got home safely.

Effects of driver fatigue

Although difficult to prove and rarely reported, falling asleep at the wheel is one of the most common causes of road traffic accidents, with devastating effects, including life-changing injury and death.

Tiredness negatively impacts many skills required in driving, such as:

  • Reaction to hazards
  • Being alert and vigilant at all times
  • Making good decisions

The combination of all three of these factors means the quality of your driving is severely affected, causing you to hit obstacles in the road that you may usually have noticed, not to mention the risk of falling asleep at the wheel.

If you are a fleet manager, training your staff and line managers to spot the first signs of fatigue plays a vital role in keeping tired drivers off the road. This could mean regularly monitoring employees by checking their journey plans, ensuring they are logging their hours appropriately, and communicating with you any problems they might have.

Without regular breaks and enough time between shifts, fatigue can not only affect driving ability, but also a person’s ability to function on a day-to-day basis. If driving is just one part of your job, tiredness and lethargy will spill into other areas, such as communication with clients over the phone, yawning during meetings, and can have a negative effect on your overall health and well-being.

Sleep is vital to operating day-to-day. Without it, side effects include stress, lack of concentration, irritability, clumsiness, and even depression. Over-working and an intense shift pattern can prolong these symptoms, leading to a reduced quality of life.

Encouraging open communication between line managers and staff ensures that safety is paramount and drivers do not feel any undue pressure to perform a journey, if they do not feel capable of doing so.

How to ensure you’re a responsible driver

Tiredness while driving can be reduced by alleviating the risk factors. These include:

  • Not driving for extended periods on motorways or poorly lit roads
  • Not setting off on a journey after taking medications known to cause drowsiness
  • Not driving between particular times, such as 2am–6am and 2pm–4pm, as these times of the day are known to bring about natural sleepiness
  • Not making the journey if you’ve had less sleep than normal

The Highway Code recommends drivers take a 15-minute break every two hours. For professional drivers and fleet managers, these regulations differ, but the principle remains. With regular motorway services and 24-hour fast food restaurants, it’s possible to give yourself a well-earned rest, whilst still making good time on your journey.

It is both up to you and your employee (if driving is part of your job) to ensure that you can handle the journey ahead of you, regardless of its distance. You should not be required to drive if you don’t feel up to it and know that you are putting yourself and others at risk.

One of the most important things to remember is that if you do not feel confident in your ability to drive due to tiredness, a medical condition, or any other reason, then you should not drive.

However, if fatigue hits during a journey, there are a number of tips you can utilise to ensure you’re responsible:

  • Always pull over at the next safe spot if you start to feel sleepy
  • Take a nap for however long you feel necessary, but give yourself at least 15-20 minutes to wake up and prepare to drive again

Most people may think a coffee break would work, but caffeine is unlikely to help you in the long-term. While it can keep you going for a little while, in the long-term it can have a negative effect, so it would be better to not rely on it.

Contrary to popular belief, playing loud music through your speakers or keeping your window down are not effective ways of keeping you awake. These are distractions, which will hinder your driving ability, causing further risk of collision.

If you must take over-the-counter medication, then ensure you read the label correctly and inform your employer if you know that the medication is likely to cause drowsiness.

Remember, prolonging your journey may be a nuisance, but is the most responsible and safest option, so you don’t cause a potentially fatal accident. If you have to take measures to keep yourself awake, then you are making a conscious decision to continue driving. This is irresponsible as it means you, as the driver or the fleet manager, are ignoring vital risks.

With all lengthy journeys, driver safety should be at the forefront of your mind, especially if you have a fleet to manage. With Allstar fuel cards, not only do your drivers have access to thousands of sites nationwide, but you can manage admin effectively through your online portal and reporting tools, giving you control. The ease of our range of products means you have fewer admin tasks to think about and more time to focus on your drivers and the journey ahead.

To find out more about how Allstar fuel cards could benefit you, get in touch with our team today on 0345 266 5101.

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