Occupational Road Safety: Falling Asleep at the Wheel – Information and Statistics

At-work road safety

The general public in the United Kingdom is rightly against people driving while under the influence of alcohol. However, the number of people dying as a result of fatigue at the wheel is very similar to the number of people killed by drink drivers. Often, accidents involving fatigue are worse as there is a high-speed impact. Secondly, it is all too common for people who are driving for work to be driving with a level of impairment that is similar to someone who is driving over the drink-driving limit. The level of disapproval from the public is nowhere near the same, though. But a tired driver has double the chance of killing someone than a driver who is fully awake.

How many workers are killed while driving for their job?

According to RoSPA (PDF file) (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents), around one-third of serious road accidents and fatal road accidents involved a person who was driving for work. Each week, this means that there could be more than 250 serious injuries and 20 fatalities.

Who is most at risk for occupational road injuries?

Anyone who uses a car or vehicle for work, whether it is their own car, a company car or commercial vehicle is at risk.

What determines that the crash has been caused by fatigue?

Many drivers will deny fatigue or deny that they have fallen asleep at the wheel because they fear that they will be prosecuted, lose insurance cover or lose their licence. It is true, however, that many also have ‘traumatic amnesia’ and so they might not actually be able to recall the accident at all.

When the police investigate an accident, they will look for signs that the driver fell asleep at the wheel. Possible signs include:

  • A lack of evidence showing the vehicle braking before impact
  • Speeding and being too close to vehicles in front
  • No personal medical problems that could have caused the accident (e.g. epilepsy or heart attack)
  • The driver was unable to see the point of impact a few seconds before the accident occurred.

When are accidents most likely to be caused by fatigue?

Crashes that are a result of fatigue or falling asleep at the when are more likely in certain situations. For example:

  • Between 4 am and 6 am when a person’s body clock expects them to be asleep
  • On dull, straight roads with no junctions or turns to keep the drive interesting
  • In the afternoon, after lunch or an alcoholic beverage
  • When a driver has had less sleep than normal
  • When drivers are taking medications that have drowsiness as a side effect
  • When drivers have worked long hours, particularly if they have just finished a night shift.

How can you deal with fatigue when driving?

The most important thing you should do is stop somewhere safe straight away. When you have stopped, drink two strong coffees then take a 15-minute nap. As the caffeine kicks in after a quarter of an hour, you will feel immediately much more awake.

There have been some tests in laboratories that show that this method can cut the number of accidents from fatigue by 90%. It’s important to drink two cups of caffeinated coffee as the content of caffeine per coffee will vary widely. It can be anywhere between 35 and 80 mg per cup. How strong the taste is doesn’t mean it has more caffeine in it. If you prefer, you can get energy drinks that have around 75 mg of caffeine in.

It is important to note, however, that following this procedure should be a one-off. Dosing up with caffeine is a temporary solution to fatigue and you will start to feel tired again. When this does happen, you need to have a proper break and stop your journey.

What things don’t work to keep you awake?

It’s often said that you should open windows to allow cold air to enter the vehicle or do exercises at the wheel and have the radio on loudly. These were found to be pretty useless when tested in labs.

What danger signs of fatigue do you need to look out for?

If you’re having to do things to keep yourself awake at the wheel, you need to take a break. Things like moving around in your seat, gripping your steering wheel too hard or winding down the window are all danger signs.

Although many drivers won’t remember having felt sleepy before they had an accident, they will have been aware that they felt tired at the time. When you fight sleep, you are already aware that you are tired and so you must do something immediately.