With extended hours at the wheel, especially on summer road trips, there’s an increased risk of fatigue — one of the main causes of death and injury on our roads.
This type of crash commonly involves a single vehicle with a single occupant driving at high speed. There is no sign the driver attempted to avoid the event and the results are likely to be serious.
The National Transportation Safety Board says fatigue is a contributing factor in about 40 per cent of fatal accidents and 56,000 crashes on American highways each year.
It says fatigue is a factor in 30-40 per cent of heavy truck crashes. Studies in France showed that during the period from 1979-94, 30 per cent of crashes on French highways were caused by fatigue/drowsiness.
Motor vehicle crashes as a result of fatigue or drowsiness has become a major public health issue. The EU estimates that more than $110 billion (Cdn.) is spent each year on the medical treatment of people injured in accidents ($5.5 billion in the U.S.) and a mere five per cent reduction in crashes would mean 2,500 fewer deaths and 75,000 fewer injuries in that part of the world alone.
Obviously, predicting and recognizing the onset of fatigue could reduce the number of crashes especially single vehicle and head-on events.
Who among us are the most likely candidates? Drivers over 45 years of age have fewer night time crashes, with a peak at 7 a.m., but are more likely to have a crash in mid-afternoon.
Numerous studies and reports indicate drivers under the age of 30 account for almost two-thirds of drowsy driving crashes, despite comprising about one-quarter of the licensed driver population. Twenty is the age of peak occurrence in drowsy driver crashes.
Young drivers don’t have much experience, don’t recognize the signs, don’t realize the consequences and think stopping is silly. Other factors affecting all groups include sleep loss or disorders, shift work, medication, alcohol and drugs. Obviously they have a cumulative effect — the combination of any will greatly increase the risk.
While truck and other professional drivers are prime prospects due to the sheer amount of time they spend at the wheel, other groups such as residents and physicians-in-training are also at risk due to work schedules of up to 30 hours at a time. Shift workers are also at increased risk, especially those on rotating schedules.
What should we look for? What are the signs? Fatigue is insidious, it catches you unaware. As you become drowsy your eyelids droop or close, your grip on the steering wheels slackens, speed varies as your leg relaxes — usually dropping in higher speed situations and increasing in slower urban areas. Your position on the road or within your lane becomes erratic.
One of the first signs is memory lapse. Have you ever had to ask yourself “Where am I?” Have you found yourself wondering how you passed a certain landmark without recalling it? From this point on your driving starts to deteriorate and you weave from side to side.
Police and other observers report it looks not unlike a drunk driver. The third stage occurs when everything gets very quiet — just as you actually fall asleep. Some drivers report hallucinations at this stage — moose or other objects on the road that do not actually exist.
But recognizing the signs is not necessarily the cure for this problem. Studies among various categories of drivers have shown that young and professional drivers know their driving deteriorates when they are tired. The young do not recognize the symptoms, so do not stop.
Professional drivers know the importance of stopping and having a rest even if they do not do so due to schedules and other pressures. Long distance commuters on the other hand would rather not stop and are convinced they can overcome fatigue.
The vast majority of crashes resulting from drowsiness occur in roads outside built up areas, high-speed highways. Obviously the consequences of a crash in these locations is more severe due to the higher speeds. They are likely to occur late at night with a secondary peak in the mid-afternoon.
While sleep deprivation is the major factor, a number of others contribute to the problem. Automated driving systems, like cruise control, may help induce fatigue, as will prolonged driving sessions under monotonous conditions.
Endless rows of evenly spaced lights have a hypnotic effect and stress has been identified as a contributing factor to both fatigue and reduced performance. Heat and stale air are also commonly found to be an issue.
Younger people get cold at the onset of fatigue and tend to turn the heat up, increasing their comfort level and thus the likelihood of nodding off. Stale air is another major factor. Avoid the use of the recirculate position on your ventilation system.
So what’s a driver to do? Sleep is the ultimate answer but secondary solutions include avoiding alcohol or other medications that cause drowsiness, using public transportation, car pools or designated drivers.
Coffee and other beverages containing caffeine provide a very short-lived stimulus. Eat invigorating fruits and vegetables rather than greasy foods, which will accentuate drowsiness.
Help is around the corner when Big Brother comes to the rescue. Work is underway on developing modules that will monitor eyelid movement and position, hand position and grip, throttle and steering inputs and lane position.
In the meantime, learn to recognize the symptoms, avoid scenarios leading up to them and be prepared to pull off the road and rest. The life you save is likely to be your own.