Four hours of lost sleep impairs a driver as much as drinking a six-pack of beer.” Henry Ford Hospital Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Detroit, Michigan

Depending on which piece of research you read between 20 and 40% of all accidents on the roads are attributable to driver fatigue. Insufficient sleep, poor individual choices, a simple adherence to ‘hours of service’ legislation, a lack of education and awareness, no understanding of the extent of the problem as well as toxic company cultures all contribute to this serious problem.

In 2011 a UK ‘Think Road Safety Campaign found that 79% of us think it is unacceptable and 66% totally unacceptable to drive when tired. However, despite the depth of public feeling recent surveys have shown that just over 4% of the population have fallen asleep at the wheel in the past 30 days and between 25 and 36 percent of workers regularly drive whilst drowsy to or from work.

My daily alerts frequently include details of tragic accidents all over the world as a result of driver fatigue. I’ve found that there appear to be three frequent themes: major accidents causing multiple deaths in public transportation, the dangers of driving after working a shift – especially a night shift and poor choices made by individuals.

The Relationship between sleep and drowsy driving

If we are not fully alert we are going to be more dangerous on the road. The quantity and quality of our sleep is intrinsically linked to our alertness. We have a built-in biomechanical mechanism that ensures we obtain the sleep we need. When we do not achieve sufficient good quality sleep our in-built mechanism sends signals to our brain that we need sleep. This causes sleepiness.

Statistics show that across the developed world the majority of the population is not now achieving the recommended amount of good quality sleep. Factor in the increasing incidence of sleep disorders and you have a recipe for an increase in accidents as a result of drowsy driving.

Sleep disorders, especially obstructive sleep apnoea can be extremely difficult to pick up. Yet this disorder can cause people to wake up hundreds of times a night, which has a debilitating effect on their ability to function the next day.

There has also been an alarming rise in insomnia. Poor sleep habits, not allowing a sufficient amount of time to achieve the sleep we need and the extensive use of sleeping pills as a first resort have all contributed to the rise in insomnia.

Examples showing the tragic result of drowsy driving

As we said in the introduction there appear to be three frequent themes. The Selby Rail Crash acts as an enduring example of how poor individual choices, fuelled by lack of understanding and awareness can have tragic consequences.

The Shannxi coach crash in China which killed 36 people, a spate bus crashes across the US as well as a campaign by a local newspaper uncovering the extent of driver fatigue at the TriMet metropolitan bus and light rail operator have all served to demonstrate the extent of the issue in public transportation across the world.

According to the UK Department of Transport, staff working night shifts are 5.5 times more likely to have a sleep-related crash. Recent examples of the potentially fatal risks of driving after a shift include the Montreal fire fighter, and a nurse in Hull as well as numerous incidences in Australia of miners driving home after working shifts.

Strategies to avoid drowsy driving

Take a look at just about any survey on strategies people take to prevent tiredness when driving and the number one measure people use to counter drowsy driving is rolling down the window. Almost invariably the second most common answer will be turning up the music. The reality is that in laboratory test neither of these measures (nor other common countermeasures) have been shown to reduce drowsiness or improve alertness.

Experts agree that the most successful countermeasure is to prevent drowsiness with adequate sleep before a journey. Taking a nap before a journey and avoiding driving in the early morning can also help. In extreme cases the current advice is to stop to sleep in a roadside hotel or, where continuation of a journey is necessary, to drink a caffeinated drink and immediately take a 15 to 20 minute nap.

So what measures can your organisation take to counter the problem?…

This blog post is an extract from the comprehensive white paper "Drowsy Driving: How and why should your organisation take a more proactive approach to tackling this costly problem?" To find out where your organisation may be going wrong and simple steps you can take to tackle the problem please feel free to click here to download the paper.

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