Wake up call for drivers


More than half of fatigue-related accidents take place on short journeys,writes Susan Jones

Dozing off behind the wheel is emerging as a serious problem on Irish roads but studies have shown that breaks taken early in the journey can save your life.

The recent Driver Reviver Campaign organised by the National Safety Council was designed to reduce fatigue-related crashes over the busy travel Easter bank holiday period.

On Good Friday and Easter Monday Driver Reviver stops were set up on most national routes, where the weary driver was able to get a free cup of tea by simply presenting their car keys.

Fatigue is very difficult to identify in motor accidents and only estimates can be made based on Garda statements or the circumstances of crashes.

However, research shows that 62 per cent of fatigue-related crashes or near crashes occurred when drivers had driven for less than two hours, often on everyday trips near home - where most driving is done.

So we all need to watch out for fatigue, even on the well-worn shopping/school-run circuit.

Longer periods of driving are fatiguing in themselves, placing drivers at considerable risk even if they were not tired when they set out on the trip.

Falling asleep at the wheel is reckoned to account for up to 20 per cent of accidents, especially on long journeys on trunk roads and motorways.

Typically, these accidents involve running the car off the road or into the back of another vehicle and such accidents are made worse by the high speed of the impact, as the driver has not had a chance to brake beforehand.

Danger times are between midnight and 6 a.m., when the "body clock" is in a daily trough, and another risk time occurs between 2 p.m. and 4p.m.

Those most at risk are men aged 30 years and under, and sleep-related vehicle accidents are more evident in young male drivers in the early morning, and in older male drivers in the mid-afternoon.

Lab studies have shown that drivers who fall asleep first go through the stage where they feel they are 'fighting off' sleep.

They feel as if they must try to wake themselves up - winding down the window for a blast of cold air - turning up the radio - stretching at the wheel, and so on.

The advice of the AA is to plan the journey well in advance and schedule in rest stops at regular intervals. Also, stop for a 15- minute break every two hours on a long journey, and drink a cup of strong coffee followed by a short nap.

The Loughborough Sleep Research Centre in Leicestershire published a report, "Arrive Alive" in November 2000. The Centre had been interested in investigating various counter-measures to driver fatigue - including coffee.

In June 2000, in the first study of its kind, they decided to look at the properties of energy drinks such as Red Bull, which contain a combination of active ingredients including caffeine.

Prof Jim Horne was initially interested in these new drinks due to their appeal to one of the largest offending groups in driver fatigue - young men.

He examined the effects of a functional energy drink (Red Bull in this case) on tired drivers who reported their sleepiness by means of the nine point Sleepiness Scale positioned on the car's dashboard.

THE research revealed that half an hour after ingesting 250 ml of the energy drink there was a marked decline in the number of driving incidents associated with sleepiness. This improvement lasted up to 90 minutes.

In an article in the Irish Medical Journal Prof W.T. McNicholas of the Department of Respiratory Medicine and Sleep Disorders at St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, states there is extensive evidence that sleepiness is a major contributing factor to road traffic accidents.

He outlines a report that revealed that of 9,000 male drivers in Britain, 29 per cent admitted to having felt close to falling asleep at the wheel the previous year, and it also indicated that a history of snoring every night increased the likelihood of accident by 30 per cent.

There is also evidence, writes Prof McNicholas, that occupations such as long-haul truck driving are particularly associated with a risk of sleepiness while driving, and an increased risk of accident particularly where there is evidence of an associated sleep disorder.

"Obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome (OSAS) is the most common organic cause of excessive daytime sleepiness," writes Prof McNicholas, " it has a prevalence of 1 to 4 per cent."

Robert Taylor, director of the RAC has this to say: "Motorists need to be aware of the potential dangers of sleepiness when driving for long periods, it can be as dangerous as driving while drunk as reaction times similarly suffer."

The RAC has called for a national awareness and education campaign to highlight the dangers of drowsy driving.

Issues to be addressed include the need for more rest and recreation areas along motorways and trunk roads, including toilets and washing facilities, vending machines and places to park and have a quiet nap.

Research shows 20 per cent of all motorway accidents happen on the hard shoulder and fatigue plays a part in many of these.

The RAC points out that more than 60 per cent of drivers questioned in their recent survey admitted to having driven while sleepy, 8 per cent said they had actually nodded off momentarily at the wheel, and 30 per cent of drivers said they felt more stressed, angry, and more likely to confront other drivers when tired.

With increased traffic, road congestion and commuters facing longer journeys to and from work it is vital that drivers realise the potential threat posed to their own safety and that of others by drowsy driving.

Simply learning to recognise the signs of fatigue, acting on them, and treating fatigue as a threat similar to being drunk or speeding could help to avoid accidents - and save lives.