Driver advice: fatigue

Sharpthumb

Drivers can pledge to – take regular breaks and never drive tired.

Everyone can pledge to – look out for friends and loved ones by ensuring they only drive if they're fit for it.

WakeUp-TirednessKillsDriving tired is lethal. Research found that a quarter of all crashes on British roads involving death or serious injury were sleep-related [1]. Nodding off at the wheel, even for a few seconds, can result in catastrophic crashes, because you don’t brake before impact. And you don’t have to actually fall asleep to put yourself and others at risk: tiredness increases reaction times and affects your ability to pay attention. But there are some simple steps all drivers can take to avoid fatigue.

Plan ahead

tired1Consider whether you need to drive. Public transport is often a better option for long journeys, and is likely to mean you arrive feeling more rested and refreshed than if you’ve been driving for hours – see our advice page and factsheets on sustainable travel.

If you have to drive, plan ahead so you are well-rested beforehand and never embark on a journey when you’re already feeling tired. If you know you have to drive the next day, especially a longer journey, make sure you get a good night’s sleep. The less sleep you get, the less chance you have of staying awake. When planning a long journey, allow time for regular breaks – at least 15 minutes at least every two hours – although you need to stop as soon as possible if you start to feel tired (see below).

If you’re driving somewhere relatively far away and coming back again, book an overnight stay in the middle if you can and ensure you’re well rested before heading home.

Avoid driving at times of day when you’re most susceptible to tiredness, like at night, in the evening after a long day, or in the mid-afternoon, when most people experience a ‘dip’.

If you drive for work

Insist on having time in your schedule for regular break periods to rest – 15 minutes every two hours is safest – and look at whether there are alternatives to driving, such as video conferencing or taking public transport to appointments.

If you drive a truck or bus, be aware of legislation covering the hours you are allowed to drive, and make sure you take the required rest breaks. Even if you fall behind schedule or get caught in traffic, always take your breaks. Safety comes before deadlines. Your employer should have a policy on driver tiredness that complies with health and safety laws and makes clear that safety is the priority. When you’re driving on company time, you and your employer have responsibility for making sure you’re not endangering yourself and others.

Brake advises companies on preventing fatigue and other issues to do with at-work road safety. Find out more at www.brakepro.org.    

If you feel tired

If you’re feeling tired at the wheel, you need to listen to the warning signs straight away and pull over somewhere safe as soon as you possibly can. Do not fool yourself that you can fight off sleep – it ensues much faster than you might think. Winding down the window or turning up your music does not help you to stay awake. If you ever head nod, you have already been asleep briefly, although you may not remember it, and these ‘microsleeps’ are enough to cause a devastating crash.

tired2Hence if you feel tired while driving, it’s vital to pull up somewhere safe and have a nap. Having a caffeinated drink (an energy drink is better than coffee as it’s a more reliable source of a reasonable dose of caffeine) followed by a 15 minute nap can help to temporarily stave off tiredness, but bear in mind this is only a temporary aid.

If you are still feeling tired after your nap, or you still have a long way to go, you need to stop and get a proper night’s sleep, which is the only solution to tiredness. Whatever you do, only continue your journey when you’re feeling fully refreshed.

Sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea is a relatively common, but often undiagnosed condition that puts sufferers at great risk of tiredness crashes. Sufferers briefly stop breathing repeatedly while they are asleep. While the sleeper may not realise it, this interrupts their sleep and results in daytime sleepiness, which can result in falling asleep at the wheel. Signs of sleep apnoea include loud snoring, disturbed sleep, regularly waking up coughing, fighting for breath during sleep, and falling asleep in the daytime. The highest-risk group for sleep apnoea are overweight middle-aged men, although it can affect other groups too.

See our fact page on sleep apnoea. If you think there is a chance you have sleep apnoea, seek medical advice. Sleep apnoea is treatable, and if left untreated can increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke and heart attacks, as well as driver fatigue crashes. The sooner you see a doctor, the better

[1] Sleep-Related Crashes on Sections of Different Road Types in the UK (1995–2001), Department for Transport, 2004

Page updated June 2015