Driving for zero: fatigue

wake upTired driving is lethal.

Crashes caused by drivers who have nodded off typically involve vehicles running off the road or into another vehicle at high speed, because sleeping drivers do not brake; so the risk of death or serious injury is high. Even if tired drivers don’t fall asleep, they still pose a danger. Too little sleep affects ability to drive safely, increasing reaction times, reducing attention, and reducing ability to control the vehicle. Research suggests driving tired can be as dangerous as drink-driving, and only sleep is a proven method for preventing it.

Tired driving is a significant cause of casualties. A study of crashes on Britain's most monotonous roads (motorways and A roads) found one in four fatal or serious injury crashes was due to tired driving. Causes are lack of sleep, irregular sleep, lack of breaks and driving in the early hours. Fatigue can be exacerbated by lack of stimulation on monotonous roads. There are also health-related causes, such as sleep apnoea (which causes day-time sleepiness and is treatable but can go undiagnosed) and some medications cause drowsiness.

Tired driving is common and many drivers still don't take it seriously enough. A Brake and Direct Line survey found a third of drivers (35%) admit to feeling tired and "pushing on", engaging in useless measures to combat fatigue. Winding down the window, listening to music and talking to a passenger do not help. Caffeine may be of only limited, short term value, but using it on its own to combat driver tiredness is not recommended. Only sleep is effective.

At-work drivers are at risk of tired driving, because they typically spend longer hours at the wheel, often on monotonous roads: four in 10 tiredness-related crashes are estimated to involve an at-work tired driver. EC regulations limit driving hours and stipulate rest breaks for large vehicles, but drivers of vans weighing under 3.5 tonnes are not required to take rest periods or record their driving hours. 

Drivers under 30 may also be at higher risk of sleep-related crashes than older drivers due to propensity to stay up late.

There are several reasons why driver tiredness is a particular concern today. There is growth in:

  • traffic on our monotonous motorway and A road network. Miles travelled by vehicles on the Strategic Road Network (motorways and many of our A roads, as managed by Highways England) rose from under 85bn in 2012/13 to nearly 90bn in 2015/16 and traffic is expected to grow up to a further 60% by 2040 compared with 2010.
  • vehicles being driven for work, with vans the fastest growing type of any vehicle on the Strategic Road Network.
  • cruise control systems as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. Research has shown these can reduce alertness.
There is also concern about road infrastructure not being of the highest quality, contributing to worse outcomes when tired drivers crash. Highways England is working to improve the safety standards of motorways and A roads, including barriers.
Read more facts on driving tired and sleep apnoea.

What are we calling for?

Brake is calling on government to:

  • Launch a review of GB domestic rules regarding drivers' hours, which do not require at-work van or car drivers to take rest breaks.
  • Ensure Brexit does not result in EU goods and passenger vehicle regulations relating to drivers' hours, being slackened.
  • Ensure prioritisation of the upgrading of central barriers on the Strategic Road Network through implementation of the Road Investment Strategy (as managed by Highways England). 
  • Review eye-lid detection DDDR systems. and consider after-market fitment in our largest vehicles (mandating, or enabling through subsidy) in line with recommendations about the efficacy of these systems by TRL (the UK's Transport Research Laboratory) to the EU. Research has found significant correlation between drooping eyelids (including "microsleeps" lasting seconds) and crashes.
  • Require the National Institute for Clinical Excellence to publish clinical guidelines on the management of sleep apnoea and similar disorders to aid medical practitioners in diagnosing and treating such disorders.
  • Review labelling of medication that causes drowsiness, to ensure it warns about driving as well as machinery operation.
  • Ensure DVSA officers and police officers are adequately staffed and trained to enforce driver hours' compliance.
  • Prioritise engagement with the fleet industry regarding screening of fleet drivers for sleep apnoea and other medical conditions that make falling asleep at the wheel much more likely.

Take action

Campaign news

Bolton MP wins national road safety award for campaign to raise awareness of sleep apnoea, 08/10/2014
Wake up to dangers of tired driving, male drivers urged: half have nodded off at wheel, 09/01/2014
Half of drivers ignore basic advice to prevent deadly tiredness at the wheel, 25/07/2013
One in eight drivers nodded off at wheel in past year, 13/07/2011
Brake's campaigns director speech at Wake Up! parliamentary reception, 13/07/2011
Driver tiredness on the rise ten years on from Selby rail crash, 28/02/2011
British Lung Foundation launches campaign raising awareness of sleep apnoea, 13/06/2011
Millions risking lives through confusion over tired driving, reveal Brake and Direct Line, 13/08/2010

End notes

[1] Transport Research Laboratory, The relationship between driver fatigue and rules limiting hours of driving and work, 2009

[2] Accident Analysis and Prevention, Exploratory study of fatigue in light and short haul transport drivers in NSW, Australia, 2008

[3] Utrecht University, Long nightly driving comparable to drunk driving, 2011

[4] Sleep research centre, Loughborough, Road Safety Research Report No. 52 Sleep-Related Crashes on Sections of Different Road Types in the UK (1995–2001), 2004

[5] The impact of continuous driving time and rest time on commercial drivers' driving performance and recovery, Harbin Institute of Technology, 2014

[6] Brake and Direct Line, Fit to drive, Tiredness and long journeys, Report 2, Section 4, 2014

[7] In-car countermeasures hardly effective against driver sleepiness, Swedish Road and Transport Research Institute, 2012

[8] Department for Transport, THINK! Don’t drive tired, (undated)

[9] Biological Psychology, Driver sleepiness—Comparisons between young and older men during a monotonous afternoon simulated drive, 2012

[10] British Medical Journal, Misperceptions about Unforewarned “Sleep Attacks” When Driving, 2011

[11] ORR, Annual assessment of Highways England performance, April 2015-Mar 2016, 2016

[12] Cruise control may cause drivers to be less attentive and more susceptible to fatigue, VINCI Autoroutes Foundation, 2013

[13] Highways England, National Incident and Casualty Reduction Plan,  2016

[14] gov.uk, Drivers' hours, GB domestic rules

[15] gov.uk, Drivers' hours, EU rules

[16] TRL, Benefit and Feasibility of a Range of New Technologies and Unregulated Measures in the fields of Vehicle Occupant Safety and Protection of Vulnerable Road Users, 2015

[17] University of Applied Sciences Schmalkalden, Microsleep Episodes and Related Crashes During Overnight Driving Simulations,  2011


Tags: government fatigue tiredness campaign