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What is driver fatigue?

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Data Blocks

Fatigue is one of the most common dangers to road safety and poses a number of risks to drivers as well as passengers and pedestrians on the road. Fatigue means that drivers have less time to react to hazards because their focus and concentration is impaired. The on-road decision-making process as a whole can be adversely affected by tiredness and can have serious implications for road safety.

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Q: What causes driver fatigue?

A: The most obvious cause of driver fatigue is insufficient or inadequate sleep. There are, however, other factors which can lead to it. Driver fatigue can easily set in during long journeys, for example, where drivers take inadequate rest periods to help break up the monotony. Likewise, irregular or disruptive work schedules can contribute to making drivers more fatigued. There are also some medical conditions, such as sleep apnoea, which can make some individuals more susceptible to driver fatigue. If a driver falls asleep for just four seconds while travelling at a speed of 100 km/h the car will have gone 111 metres without a driver in control.

Q: How many road accidents occur as the result of fatigued driving?

A: According to the TAC, around 20% of fatal road accidents involve driver fatigue in Australia, though it is impossible to measure exactly how many accidents are fatigue-related. It is clear that fatigue-related accidents are more dangerous – they are 50 per cent more likely to result in fatality or serious injury because they are more likely to occur at higher speeds, as drivers who have fallen asleep are unable to brake or swerve away. A study conducted by the Adelaide Centre for Sleep Research concluded:

  • A person who has been awake for 17 hours faces the same risk of a crash as a person who has a BAC reading of 0.05 g/100ml. They are therefore twice as likely to have an accident as a person with a zero blood alcohol content who is not fatigued.
  • Drivers who have been awake for 24 hours will have a driving performance similar to a person who has a BAC of 0.1 g/100ml. They are seven times more likely to have an accident.

Q: Are there any other health concerns associated with lack of sleep and driver fatigue?

A: Yes. Insufficient sleep can manifest itself in both physical and mental health problems. Among the physical health conditions linked with regular lack of sleep are diabetes, heart disease and obesity. It’s also worth noting that people who find themselves deprived of sleep are more likely to resort to sugary food and drink, excessive consumption of which also contributes to various health problems. In terms of mental health, persistently inadequate sleep has been linked to depression and anxiety.

Q: Which people are most likely to be susceptible to driver fatigue?

A: TAC has noted that young drivers, shift workers (including heavy vehicle drivers and drivers with sleep disorders are among those groups of people most at risk from suffering driver fatigue. According to VicRoads Road Accident Facts Victoria, 1998 Edition, about 30% of severe single vehicle crashes in rural areas involve the driver being fatigued. The fact that many commercial vehicle and truck drivers are likely to be on the road for hours at a time, it leaves them at a higher risk of experiencing driver fatigue. As well as the potential for falling asleep at the wheel, tired drivers may be more likely to make misjudged manoeuvres – late lane changes, for example – likely to lead to road accidents.

Q: How does this impact on driver's productivity at work?

A: In addition to the implications for road safety, persistent inadequate or disturbed sleep can make commercial drivers considerably less productive than they would otherwise be. Likewise, a lack of sleep may be indicative of other physical or mental health problems which again can have an adverse impact on productivity. This means that it is in the direct commercial interest of fleets – leaving other considerations to one side for a moment – to take a proactive approach to combatting driver fatigue. 

Q: What exactly can fleets do to tackle driver fatigue?

A: Driving is one of the most dangerous work activity that most people do. It’s important therefore to adopt a multifaceted strategy for tackling driver fatigue. First, drivers need to be educated and reminded about the risk of driver fatigue, and as to how they can reduce the risk of it. 

Drivers should be reminded regularly that they are legally obliged to take rest periods of a certain length at particular intervals. For heavy vehicle drivers, taking adequate rest breaks according to assigned fatigue rulesets. Fleet operators should give drivers the encouragement and opportunity to take more frequent breaks in order to help break up the routine and keep them as fresh and alert as possible when driving.

Technology can also make a big difference in reducing the risk of driver fatigue. Fleet management software can provide fleet managers with the information they need to manage driver hours effectively, providing real-time information on the hours individual drivers have worked and enabling them to allocate the workload more evenly across the workforce – thereby helping to avoid overwork and alleviating the risk of driver fatigue setting in. Electronic Work Diaries (EWDs), meanwhile, provide accurate records of drivers’ work and rest hours and thereby greatly simplify compliance with legislation including Chain of Responsibility regulations and fatigue laws. 

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