Male drivers urged to wake up to dangers of tired driving; survey finds half have nodded off at wheel

9 January 2014

Brake, the road safety charity

Male drivers are being urged to get plenty of sleep and take regular breaks, as research from Brake and Direct Line reveals a horrifying 45% admit ‘head-nodding’ at the wheel – meaning they have been asleep briefly, risking appalling crashes.

Brake and Direct Line’s survey [1] reveals:

  • One in three drivers overall (31%) admit ‘head-nodding’ at the wheel – nearly half (45%) of male drivers and one in five (22%) female drivers.
  • One in 14 drivers overall (7%) admit actually ‘falling asleep’ at the wheel – 14% of male drivers and 2% of female drivers.
  • Almost half (49%) of drivers admit driving after less than five hours’ sleep – not nearly enough for safe driving. Again, this is more common among men (55%) than women (45%).

Many drivers aren’t aware that if you ‘head nod’ (also called ‘micro-sleeps’) you have already nodded off, putting yourself and others in a huge amount of danger. Micro-sleeps can last from two to 30 seconds, meaning that a frighteningly large number of drivers have been temporarily out of control of their vehicles.

Tired driving kills at least 300 people on UK roads every year [2], with a devastating impact on families across the country – although the actual figure could be much higher as driver tiredness can be hard to prove as a cause of crashes. More facts below.

Brake urges all drivers to help stamp out devastating crashes by making a pledge to always getting a good night’s sleep before driving, taking two-hourly breaks, and pulling over somewhere safe as soon as safe to do so, if feeling tired.

Brake also calls on the government to run more campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of driving when tired and how to avoid it, as well as calling on them to conduct a review of safe stopping places on motorways, ensuring there are enough to enable drivers to take regular breaks.

Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive, Brake, said: “The fact that so many drivers – especially men – have head-nodded at the wheel is horrifying, even more so that many don’t recognise this means they have fallen asleep briefly. This survey suggests this is down to many people failing to ensure they always get sufficient sleep before embarking on journeys. We need all drivers to wake up to the fact that ‘head nodding’ is falling asleep, and can easily lead to catastrophe, but it can, of course be prevented. Brake urges all drivers to pledge to get a good night’s sleep before driving, take breaks every two hours, and never try to ‘plough on’ when they’re tired, because sleep can ensue so quickly. Ultimately, getting home to your loved ones a bit later is better than never getting there at all.” 

Rob Miles, director of Motor at Direct Line, commented: “Tiredness and driving are a deadly combination. Not only is there a risk of falling asleep at the wheel, but when we are tired our reactions and awareness of our surroundings are not as sharp as they would normally be. Regular breaks, at least every two hours, are essential for staying alert and awake, as is getting plenty of sleep the night before.”

Read about Brake’s ‘Wake up!’ campaign. Read the survey report.

At least 300 people are killed each year as a result of drivers falling asleep at the wheel [3] and tiredness is estimated to cause one in five deaths on UK trunk roads [4]. These crashes typically involve vehicles running off the road or into the back of another vehicle, and are often serious, high speed collisions because the driver does not brake [5].

Too little sleep radically affects your ability to drive safely: on just five hours’ sleep you only have a one in ten chance of staying awake on a lengthy journey [6]. When sleep comes it is not without warning; drivers know when they are getting sleepy [7]. Warning signs include: difficulty concentrating; yawning; heavy eyelids; eyes starting to ‘roll’; neck muscles relaxing, making your head droop.

Drivers trying to fight off sleep often experience ‘micro-sleeps’, nodding off for two to 30 seconds, often without realising or remembering it. This is more than enough to cause a fatal crash: a driver experiencing a six-second micro-sleep at 70mph on a motorway would travel 200m in that time. Simulator studies have shown a clear relationship between ‘micro-sleeps’ and crashes [8].

At-work drivers are particularly at risk from tiredness, because they typically spend much longer hours at the wheel. Nearly half (about four in ten) tiredness-related crashes involve someone driving a commercial vehicle [9].

If you cause a death while proven to be driving tired, you can be charged with causing death by dangerous driving. The maximum penalty is 14 years in prison.

Brake's advice
Brake urges all drivers to have a good night’s sleep before any journey. If you drive when tired, it is impossible to stop yourself eventually nodding off at the wheel [10]. Drivers should also take a break at least every two hours for at least 15 minutes, but should stop sooner if they feel tired.

Winding down the window or turning up the radio does not prevent sleep. If you feel tired you need to stop in a safe place as soon as possible. Drink coffee or ideally an energy drink with caffeine in it, then try to snooze for ten minutes in your vehicle. By the time you wake up, the caffeine will have kicked in [11]. If you feel alert again, drive on. If not, stay put. Bear in mind the effects of caffeine are temporary; the only real solution is a good night’s sleep.

If you wake up in the morning feeling exhausted, struggle to stay awake, snore or wake up struggling to breathe, you may suffer from a relatively common condition called sleep apnoea. Sufferers are at a significantly increased risk of crashing [12]. However, the condition is fully treatable, so if you experience symptoms, stop driving immediately and see a doctor.

Calls for government action
Brake calls for a national audit of rest areas and crash barriers on motorways and trunk roads to ensure that there is adequate provision for drivers to rest regularly, and to minimise the consequences of crashes caused by tired drivers.

Brake is also calling on the government to run more education campaigns warning of the dangers of driving tired, and explaining what drivers can do to prevent tired driving crashes.

Case study
Andrew Radford, 33, was a respected deputy head teacher at a primary school in Shropshire. He was a kind and gentle man with a love of music.

At about 5.30pm on 4 December 2008 Andrew was on his way back from work, and only two minutes away from home, when he veered across the central line into oncoming traffic, causing several cars to swerve out of his way before crashing head-on into a Volvo. A driver behind Andrew noted that his brake lights did not come on. Despite having emergency surgery, Andrew died in hospital in the early hours of Friday 5 December.

Andrew told a paramedic treating him at the scene that he fell asleep at the wheel after deciding not to take a break. This decision cost him his life.

His wife Vicki was left to break the news to their two children, Sam and Alice (then aged 4 and 2). Vicki says: “As a husband and father he was perfect – my best friend, soul mate and love of my life. I wish that we had known more about tired driving and taken it more seriously. Andrew was a good driver – no points, always sensible, the last person you would think this could happen to. I wish that he had stopped to rest; I would rather he came home late than not at all. If any good can come out of this, then it will be that people will hear about Andrew and think again about continuing to drive when they feel tired. The only way to stop this happening over and over is show people the consequences – it happened to us, it can happen to you.”

The coroner at Andrew’s inquest said: “The tragic death of Mr Radford is a reminder to all of us that when we do feel tired when driving, but feel we can make it to our destination, it is better to stop.”

About the report
These survey results come from section 5 of the Direct Line and Brake report on safe driving, 2012 – 2014 Fit to drive, released today (Tuesday 7 January). The survey consisted of 1,000 drivers and was conducted by Redshift Research. Read the report.

Brake is an independent road safety charity. Brake exists to stop the five deaths and 63 serious injuries that happen on UK roads every day and to care for families bereaved and seriously injured in road crashes. Brake runs awareness-raising campaigns, community education programmes, events such as Road Safety Week (18-24 November 2013), and a Fleet Safety Forum, providing advice to companies. Brake’s support division cares for road crash victims through a helpline and other services.

Road crashes are not accidents; they are devastating and preventable events, not chance mishaps. Calling them accidents undermines work to make roads safer, and can cause insult to families whose lives have been torn apart by needless casualties.

Direct Line
Started in 1985, Direct Line became the first UK insurance company to use the telephone as its main channel of communication. It provides motor, home, travel and pet insurance cover direct to customers by phone or on-line.

Direct Line general insurance policies are underwritten by UK Insurance Limited, Registered office: The Wharf, Neville Street, Leeds LS1 4AZ. Registered in England No 1179980. UK Insurance Limited is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority.

Direct Line and UK Insurance limited are both part of Direct Line Insurance Group plc. Customers can find out more about Direct Line products or get a quote by calling 0845 246 3761 or visiting

End notes
[1] A survey of 1,000 drivers from across the UK conducted on behalf of Brake and Direct Line by Redshift Research. The results are contained in the Brake and Direct Line Report on Safe Driving 2012-14: Fit to Drive, section 5 – tiredness. Read the report.
[2] Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre,
[3] ibid
[4] Department for Transport,
[5] ibid
[6] Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre,
[7] ibid
[8] Golz, M. et al. 2011. ‘Microsleep Episodes and Related Crashes During Overnight Driving Simulations’,
[9] Department for Transport,
[10] Horne, J & Reyner, L. 1995. ‘Sleep Related Vehicle Accidents’, British Medical Journal
[11] ibid
[12] Sleep Apnoea Trust,


Tags: fatigue tiredness impairment