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The dangers of drowsy driving

Thursday, May 6, 2004
A Drowsy Driver

Have you ever driven when tired?

If you answered “yes”, you’re not alone. According to a recent survey, 55 percent of motorists admitted to driving when drowsy over the past year. It is a problem that impacts not only the sleepy driver, but everyone in the community.

Did you know:

  • One out of every three motor vehicle accidents can be attributed to driver fatigue;
  • People who drive after having less than 7 hours sleep perform worse than those with a blood alcohol level of 0.05, our legal limit; and
  • 70 percent of insurance claims made for accidents by the trucking industry are fatigue-related.

As shocking as these figures are, they may actually be understated, given that no objective sleepiness test exists (such as a Breathalyzer for detecting alcohol), and that accident assessors do not receive formal training for dealing with sleep-related accidents. It is not uncommon for fatigue-related accidents to be miscategorised as speeding or intoxication.


The Warning Signs

Experiencing any or all of the signs below whilst driving, may increase your risk of a fatigue-related accident:

  • Difficulty remembering the last few kilometres;
  • Lane drifting or hitting the rumble strip;
  • Experiencing disconnected and wondering thoughts;
  • Frequent yawning;
  • Struggling to keep your eyes open or focused;
  • “Nodding off” and trouble keeping your head up;
  • Irritability and restlessness;
  • Tailgating or missing traffic signs.


Who are Most at Risk?

  • YOUNG DRIVERS
    Sleepiness caused by late partying and unusual work/study hours makes this group more accident prone. A study of sleep-related crashes found that 55 percent of fall-asleep cases involved young people under the age of 25. Of these accidents, 75 percent of the drivers were males.

  • SLEEP DEPRIVED DRIVERS
    Not only do tired drivers perform as poorly as drink drivers, studies indicate that drivers who have been awake for 15 hours or more, are 4 times more likely to have an accident than a person who has had a good night’s sleep. For those who have been awake for 20 hours or more, the risk increases 30 fold.

  • SHIFTWORKERS
    Working when your body is programmed to be asleep can lead to body clock (circadian rhythm) disorders. Studies suggest that 20-30 percent of shiftworkers have had a fatigue-related driving mishap within the last year. Nightshift workers that drive home the following day are particularly at risk.

  • COMMERCIAL DRIVERS
    Truck drivers are particularly at risk due to irregular work schedules as well as the high prevalence of a sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). It is estimated that as many as 30-40 percent of all commercial vehicle accidents are fatigue-related.

  • PEOPLE WITH AN UNTREATED SLEEP DISORDER
    Even though sleep disorders affect one in every four Australians, 95 percent of those with a sleep disorder remain undiagnosed and untreated. OSA especially, if left untreated can increase the risk of an accident by up to 15 times.


What preventative measures can I take?

  • GET ENOUGH SLEEP THE NIGHT BEFORE
    While this varies from person to person, the average individual requires about 8 hours of sleep a night.

  • AVOID LONG-DISTANCE DRIVING ALONE
    Long road trips should be planned with a companion, as another set of eyes can help look out for the early warning signs of fatigue, or if required, take over the wheel. Figures from a study showed that 82 percent of reported fall-asleep/drowsy crashes involved someone driving alone.

  • AVOID SLEEPY TIMES OF DAY
    The periods 12:00 A.M. to 8:00 A.M. and 1:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M. are statistically the most dangerous time to drive. These two periods are when people naturally feel most tired. This is because our body clock (circadian rhythm) tells us to sleep regardless of whether we have had enough sleep or not. When driving during these dangerous periods, please be aware of the risks, and ensure you get plenty of rest beforehand.

  • TAKE REGULAR BREAKS
    Schedule regular stops every 150 km or 2 hours. Stop sooner if tired.

  • TAKE A POWER NAP
    When feeling tired, pull over to a rest area, roll up the windows, lock the doors, and lie back for 20 minutes or so. Research shows that a 20 minutes nap in the afternoon provides more rest than sleeping an extra 20 minutes in the morning.

  • DON’T DRINK & DRIVE
    Alcohol is a natural sedative and alone can increase the risk of an accident. When combined with excessive sleepiness, its effects are exaggerated, significantly diminishing a person’s mental and physical alertness. Research shows that the effects of one beer on a person who has had 4 hours sleep is the equivalent of a 6-pack on a well-rested person.

  • BEWARE OF CERTAIN MEDICATIONS
    Certain over-the-counter and prescription medications can cause tiredness and impair driver performance. Medications to be watchful for include: sleeping pills, narcotic pain pills, some antidepressants, tranquilisers, some high blood pressure pills, cold or cough tablets/liquids, and muscle relaxants.

  • SEEK TREATMENT FOR SLEEP DISORDERS
    Consult your family doctor if you suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness, have difficulty sleeping at night regularly, and/or snore most nights.
©2003 Sleep & Chest Disorders Centre

For more information, visit www.sleepcentre.com.au


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