Drowsy driving as dangerous as drinking and driving

Similar to the way drinking and driving emerged as a road safety issue, impairment by fatigue, or drowsy driving is fast becoming a major concern worldwide. It can be just as deadly as drinking and driving, or unsafe speed.

According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), sleep and fatigue often leave no clues for investigators to trace. Unlike alcohol-related crashes, no blood, breath, or other test is currently available to determine levels of sleepiness at the time of a crash. This leaves investigators with little hard data on which to base a conclusion of fatigue or sleep as a cause or contributing factor.

Despite the data limitations, the TSB estimates about 5% of fatal crashes are firmly established as being caused by drowsy driving. Experts suggest the actual number may be as high as 20% to 40%. And that makes drowsy driving as dangerous as drinking and driving, which accounts for approximately 24% of all victims in vehicle fatalities.

Characteristics of fatigue-related crashes
• Usually occur during late night/early morning or late afternoon.
• A single vehicle, driver is alone and drives off the road (but also a factor in rear-end and head-on crashes).
• No skid marks, brake lights, horn sounded, or other evidence the driver tried to avoid the crash.
• The crash occurs on a high-speed road, usually a highway in non-urban areas where more long distance night time driving occurs.
• The crash is likely to be serious, usually due to the high speeds involved combined with delayed (if any) reaction time.
Although no driver is immune, 3 groups are at highest risk:

1. Younger people ages 16-29 years, especially males. A combination of lifestyle factors such as schoolwork demands, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities and late-night socialising.

2. Shift workers whose sleep is disrupted by working at night or working long or irregular hours.

3. People with untreated or unrecognised sleep apnea syndrome (SAS) or narcolepsy (sudden onset of brief attacks of daytime deep sleep, or micro-sleeps).

The Warning Signs

You’re becoming impaired by fatigue if you experience some of these characteristics:

• Yawning, daydreaming.
• Difficulty keeping your head up, eyes open, blurry vision.
• Feeling sluggish, hungry, thirsty.
• Droning or humming in the ears.
• Don’t notice a vehicle until it suddenly passes.
• Don’t recall driving the last few kilometres.
• Driving speed creeps up or down.
• Wandering over the centre-line, into another lane or shoulder.
What Drivers Can Do

The problem with fatigue is that it slowly develops and drivers often don’t realise they’re too tired to drive safely. Once fatigue sets in, there is little you can do about it except stop driving as soon as possible. Physical activity, loud music, opening a window or eating might provide a short boost of energy, but these really only mask fatigue. When drivers return to sit still and perform repetitive tasks such as driving, sleep returns quickly.

Plan to Drive Refreshed and Alert

• The only cure for sleepiness is sleep. Get enough sleep.
• Don’t drink even small amounts of alcohol when tired. Alcohol interacts with and adds to drowsiness.
• Avoid driving between midnight and 6am. Scheduling a trip at another time is a simple way to reduce risk, especially if the drive is long.
• As soon as you become sleepy, the key is to stop driving. Let a passenger drive or stop and get adequate sleep before continuing a trip.
• Take frequent breaks if driving for long periods.
• Medications may cause drowsiness. Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you’re taking prescription or over-the­counter drugs.