Could a blood test see you prosecuted for ‘drowsy driving’?

Recent research and shocking new statistics could lead to a blood test and a prosecution for drowsy driving. We explore.

We all know the risks of driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Not only could you face serious legal repercussions, ranging from penalty points to a driving ban if convicted, but you could also pose a serious danger to yourself and others.

While there are plenty of headlines about drug and alcohol-induced incidents on the road, we hear about tiredness at the wheel far less often. However, that doesn’t mean so-called ‘drowsy driving’ is any less of a danger than driving under the influence.

In fact, the data shows it’s a worrying and underreported issue that could account for a significant number of incidents on UK roads. Experts estimate that fatigue-related crashes could account for up to 20% of all UK vehicle collisions, and one quarter of fatal and serious crashes.

What’s more, almost half of UK drivers have admitted to driving after less than five hours’ sleep. Shockingly, the risk of having a crash could be doubled if you’ve slept for under four or five hours in the previous 24 hours, a recent study discovered.

Especially now, as we head into summer, the longer daylight hours could see you out and about for longer periods of time, at work, enjoying a day trip to a beach, or even just socialising. Combine this with how tiring the hot weather can be, you may not even realise you are fatigued as you get behind the wheel.

Tougher rules for fatigued driving

While drunkenness or drug use can be detected using breath and blood tests, an equivalent is not currently in use for testing sleep deprivation, even though it can be just as, or if not more dangerous. Now, reports of a new blood test could lead to a law for the minimum number of hours of sleep required to drive.

A team of Australian scientists has published ground-breaking research, claiming it can identify five substances in the blood that can indicate if someone has been awake for 24 hours – with more than 99% accuracy. In follow up studies, which came closer to real-life situations, the test was 90% accurate. However, further work is needed to be able to differentiate between people who have had five hours of sleep or just two.

It’s thought that a forensic blood test for sleep deprivation, which could be conducted alongside existing drug and alcohol tests if someone is taken to hospital after a vehicle crash, could be ready in as little as two years.

If this were to become law, an agreed legal threshold for the minimum sleep that a motorist requires to drive safely is needed. This is similar to the blood alcohol cut-off level, which is 0.08% in the UK apart from Scotland, where the threshold is 0.05%.

Together with an agreed level of required sleep, this blood test could provide a line in the sand that could lead to people being prosecuted for driving while fatigued. It could also make it easier to legislate against employers who support drowsy driving by not allowing for breaks or scheduling proper shift patterns for their drivers.

Of course, no one wants to be tired behind the wheel – but for some people it’s hard to avoid, based on their profession or life circumstances. One major concern is the impact this could have on doctors and nurses, who work longer shifts and are eager to get home for some much-needed rest. So, could these new rules make it even tougher to attract skilled medical professionals to the NHS?

And, there are also those who struggle to sleep due to health conditions or certain types of medication that can cause insomnia. Even the menopause can cause sleeping problems, and those with a new-born baby can certainly testify to a lack of sleep.

So, are we in danger of punishing some demographics of people more than others? And will there be a ‘reasonable circumstances’ in play, if or when the law does change?

Why is drowsy driving so dangerous?

Despite concerns over the imbalance of impact on an otherwise innocent demographic, the reality is that, sadly, drowsy driving can be as dangerous as drink driving. A person who drives after being awake for 17 hours has their driving skills impaired comparable to a driver with a 0.05mg/ml blood alcohol level. A driver who hasn’t slept for 24 hours has impaired driving skills comparable to a driver with an illegal high blood alcohol concentration of 0.1%.

Drowsy driving leads to a significant decrease in driving ability by:

  • Slowing down your reaction time
  • Reducing your attention
  • Compromising your decision-making
  • Decreasing your ability to control the vehicle

While there are currently no laws directly related to tiredness, anyone who kills while driving fatigued can be charged with death by dangerous driving or death by careless driving. So, it’s something that is certainly best avoided.

There are several signs to watch out for that indicate you’re too tired to drive, but some are more obvious than others. It’s a case of reminding yourself to look for them, as you may be too tired to notice naturally. These can include the more obvious yawning, heavy eyelids, blinking frequently and feeling your head nodding. Pay attention to being unable to recall sections of the road, and drifting into other lanes. If you notice any of this, stop.

How to avoid drowsy driving and stay safe behind the wheel

We all know that we shouldn’t drive when we feel tired. But sometimes, logistics, time constraints, a lack of alternatives – or even the weather – can mean that we get behind the wheel when we shouldn’t.

To minimise the risk of fatigued driving, you should:

  1. Make sure you’re well rested and feeling fit and healthy – don’t drive if you feel tired.
  2. Plan your journey and allow enough time for regular breaks.
  3. Take breaks at regular, appropriate intervals. Do not drive more than 7.5 hours at a time and schedule an overnight stop if your journey is longer than 12 hours.
  4. Rest on your breaks by having a coffee and then napping while the caffeine kicks in.
  5. Be aware of how monotonous roads, such as motorways, can affect your concentration.
  6. Avoid driving when you would normally be sleeping, i.e. between midnight and 6am.
  7. Be extra cautious between 2pm and 4pm, especially after you’ve eaten.
  8. Plan to use public transport or arrange a lift instead of driving if you know you will be tired, such as after a long shift.
  9. If you suffer from sleep apnoea with excessive sleepiness, do not drive until your symptoms are under control.
  10. Avoid driving if you’re take a medication than causes drowsiness.

Talk to A-Plan

The circumstances leading up to a serious motoring conviction can vary considerably, but the outcome will still look the same on your licence. If you get caught and charged with driving without due care and attention, your car insurance costs could be affected.

At A-Plan, we’re here to help. As well as standard car insurance, we can also help you find the right insurance to suit you. Simply give us a ring, or pop into your local branch and speak with one of our advisors.

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Sources: The Guardian, The Independent, RAC, Road Safety Scotland, Police.UK