Driver fatigue continues to be a major cause of road deaths. A survey by Smith's Lawyers has found that over 50% of Aussie drivers are still not heeding the recommendation to stop for a break every two hours.
Long drives are an inevitable part of the joys (or otherwise) of the holiday season. Whether it involves singalongs, bickering (He’s poking me! She hit me first!) or just long stretches of your own company and whatever podcast you’re currently binging, the road-trip is part of the whole experience.
While you’re packing and stressing, authorities are making preparations too. In the lead-up, somewhere among the giant holiday sales, supermarket promos, and another rerun of a Chipmunk Christmas, driver safety campaigns – many focusing on driver fatigue – will start to amp up on TV, radio and online.
That’s because tiredness is a really big problem when it comes to driving. In the state of NSW, for instance, driver fatigue is one of the three main causes of injury and death on the roads. According to Transport NSW, more people in NSW died in fatigue-related crashes than drink driving crashes from 2013 to 2017.
Even though research clearly shows that our driving performance suffers when we’re tired, many of us are still ignoring the recommended advice to stop every two hours for a 15 minute break.
In fact, a survey by Smith’s Lawyers found that over 50% of Australian drivers ignore that recommendation by driving three or more hours before taking a break.
“The numbers are a little concerning,” says Greg Smith, Principal at Smith’s Lawyers.
“With the holiday rush just around the corner, we’d urge drivers to plan some extra time to take breaks along the way and stay safe, especially those who typically do long stints at the wheel.”
Smith’s Lawyers survey found that some groups of drivers are putting themselves in riskier situations than others.
Younger drivers (18-24), for instance are 33% more likely to drive three or more hours than older drivers (55-64). That means a whopping 64% of drivers aged 18-24 are not taking a break on those long trips.
Men are also putting themselves in greater danger, with only 38% stopping every two hours compared with 47.4% of women.
That’s not particularly surprising. Men are also over-represented when it comes to taking other road safety risks like drink driving, speeding, or not wearing a seat-belt.
A 2005 poll undertaken by the (US) National Sleep Foundation found that men are almost twice as likely to fall asleep while driving than women. In NSW, women only made up 17% of drivers or passengers in driver fatigue-related fatal crashes between 2014 and 2018.
According to Transport NSW, the number of deaths from fatigue-related accidents in that state has fallen by 45% over the last 18 years.
The organisation puts that down partly to concerted public education campaigns about the early warning signs of driver fatigue, encouraging breaks, and rules for drivers of heavy vehicles. There’s even an interactive fatigue test you can take: Test Your Tired Self. (My result was: “You’re slow off the mark.”)
Across Australia, states have rolled out public education campaigns, like Queensland's “Driving Tired”, which warns bluntly: “You might fall asleep and never wake up.” That hasn't been the case in the USA so far though, which may explain the much higher percentage of people – 69% – who don't follow the safety advice.
USA Survey Results - Driving 3 hours plus at a time is the norm in America
And there are other measures too. You may have noticed the wide centre lines and wire barriers that are there to prevent you from drifting too far to either side, or taken advantage of a rest area on the side of a highway.
You may even have felt the bump of lane markings (or “rumble strips”) under your tires if you’ve veered across them. In a collaboration with international researchers, Queensland University of Technology research found that the first time a driver hits a rumble strip, it does reduce sleepiness (though the effect is reduced with each bump, so the first time it happens should be taken as a warning to stop driving).
And, heralding further improvements to come, some vehicles now have dashboard technology able to detect the first symptoms of loss of concentration.
“Crashes due to tiredness are twice as likely to be fatal than other crashes – because drivers who are asleep can’t brake,” says Executive Director for the Centre For Road Safety, Bernard Carlon.
He says it’s important to check yourself for the early warning signs.
“Are you yawning, finding it hard to concentrate or getting sore/tired eyes? Before you even get in your car, if you’re too tired, have a nap beforehand,” he advises.
And, while we tend to think about this issue when it comes to long trips, or driving at night, the reality is that it can be a problem at any time.
“It can also affect you on shorter, everyday trips like heading off to work early in the morning or driving home after a long day,” says Mr Carlon.
“You need to consider how tired you are any time you drive, day or night, regardless of the length of your trip.”
Surveys run by Smith’s Lawyers via Google surveys to a total of 1,605 drivers aged 18-64 in Australia and the USA between the date of 10-14 November 2019. Non-drivers were screened out from survey.