The dangers of drowsy driving
Drowsy Driving: Have you ever been driving and suddenly found your eyelids droop, your eyes go out of focus,
you can’t stop yawning and you can’t remember driving the last few kilometres? If so you have been a “drowsy
driver” and you’re not alone! Surveys suggest that 60% of adults report driving while feeling drowsy. Twenty
percent report that they had actually dozed off while driving
Drowsy drivers cause accidents. The Australian National Road Safety strategy (2011-2020) estimates that
fatigue or sleepiness contributes to 20 to 30% of motor vehicle crashes. For fatal, single vehicle crashes the
number is even higher. On country roads the risk of a fatigue related crash is thirteen times that of driving in the
city. It is estimated that in Australia the cost to the community of road crashes involving drowsy driving is more
than $2 billion per year.
Being sleepy is like being drunk. Research from the Centre for Sleep Research in Adelaide has shown that
after 17 hours without sleep you drive as poorly as if you had a blood alcohol level of 0.05 and after 24 hours
without sleep it’s the same as a level of 0.10. So if you get up at 7 am and drive home at midnight, you’ve been up
for 17 hours and you are driving as poorly as if you were drunk.
Who is most at risk? You might think the elderly, but this is not the case. Statistics show that 55% of drowsy
driving accidents involved people 25 years or younger. Shift workers also have a high risk as do long distance
truck drivers. People with sleep disorders such as sleep apnea may also be at particular risk.
Drowsy driving can be avoided. The first thing to do is to recognise the warning signs and act on them. If
any of these things happen, you are in real danger of having a drowsy driving accident.
• Your eyes close or go out of focus by themselves
• You have trouble keeping your head up
• You can’t stop yawning
• You have wandering thoughts
• You don’t remember driving the past few kilometres
• You drift between lanes, off the road, or miss signs
Prevention is better than cure! There is no substitute for sleep. If you need to drive a long distance,
particularly at night or in that sleepy period straight after lunch, make sure you have had plenty of sleep the night
before. Most accidents happen when you have had less than 6 hours sleep. If you have to drive through the day,
try to take a siesta after lunch. Better still, rotate the driving. Don’t rely on lots of coffee, loud music, open
windows or passengers to keep you awake. These will only delay the inevitable. If the signs are there, stop!
A “power nap” may get you out of a difficult situation. If you must continue driving and there is no-one
else to share the duties, a short nap may refresh you enough to continue driving for another couple of hours.
Pull over to a quiet spot, recline the seat and take a nap of about 15 minutes, not much longer. After your nap get
out of the car, walk around for 5 minutes and then drive on. Be aware of the signs of drowsiness and avoid the
temptation to go just that little bit further. Remember, most accidents happen within a short distance of home.
We don’t tolerate drunk drivers on our roads, why should we tolerate drowsy drivers.
Don’t let you or one of your friends be another drowsy driver who “died in his sleep”.
A Quiz for Drowsy Drivers
1. Coffee overcomes the effects of drowsiness while driving.
FALSE. Stimulants are no substitute for sleep. Drinks containing caffeine, such as coffee or cola can help you
feel more alert, but the effects last only for a short time.
2. I can tell when I’m going to fall asleep.
FALSE. Don’t be embarrassed if you said “TRUE”. If you’re like most people, you believe you can control your
sleep. In a test, nearly four-fifths of people said they could predict when they were about to fall asleep. They
were wrong. If you’re drowsy, you can fall asleep and never even know it. You also cannot tell how long you’ve
been asleep. When you’re driving, being asleep for even a second can kill you or someone else.
3. I’m a safe driver so I can cope with being sleepy.
FALSE. The only safe driver is an alert driver. Even the safest drivers become confused and use poor judgment
when they are sleepy. In order to be a safe driver you must have your eyes open – and that means staying off
the road when you’re sleepy.
4. I can’t take naps.
FALSE. Many people insist they can’t nap. Yet even people who say they are not tired will quickly fall asleep in
a darkened room particularly if they have not had enough sleep. If you think you can’t nap, stop the car and
recline for fifteen minutes anyway. You may be surprised at how quickly you fall asleep once you give yourself
5. I get plenty of sleep.
FALSE. Chances are good that you really aren’t getting all the sleep you need. The average person needs
seven or eight hours of sleep a night. If you go to bed late and wake up early to an alarm clock, you probably
are building up a sleep deficit during the week.
6. Being sleepy makes you misjudge things.
TRUE. Have you ever driven at night and seen something you thought was an animal but turned out to be a
paper bag or a dead leaf? That’s only one of the many ways sleepy drivers misjudge their surroundings. A
drowsy driver doesn’t process information as fast or as accurately as an alert driver and is unable to react
quickly enough to avoid a collision.
7. Young people need less sleep.
FALSE. In fact, teenagers and young people need more sleep than people in their 30s. They often get less,
because they enjoy staying up late. Teenagers and young adults who get up early tend to feel alert in the
evening. They think that means they don’t need much sleep. The problem is, the temporary alertness wears off
later, and they can end up driving home drowsy.
Adapted from the quiz “HOW SAFE A SLEEPER ARE YOU?”
AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 1996.
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