The real danger of drowsy driving

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

Juggling multiple clients, job sites and locations is always a challenge, and it can leave you feeling stretched thin. But if you’re getting behind the wheel as part of your job, staying alert is absolutely vital, keeping you and other road users safe, and not putting the business at risk.

If you’re an employer and/or business owner, you have a responsibility to make sure your employees are fit to drive as part of their job, and this includes whether they are alert and rested enough. As an employee or if you’re self-employed, it’s crucial that you take personal responsibility for recognising when you’re too tired to be in control of a vehicle.

The risks of driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol are well known, as are the serious legal repercussions, ranging from penalty points to a driving ban if convicted. But we hear about tiredness at the wheel far less often – even though so-called ‘drowsy driving’ is as much as a danger as 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 working for longer periods of time, with fewer breaks. Combine this with how tiring the hot weather can be, you may not even realise you are fatigued as you get behind the wheel.

Why is drowsy driving so dangerous?

Sadly, the reality is that drowsy driving can be as dangerous as drink driving. A person who drives after being awake for 17 hours has impaired driving skills 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.

What are the business risks of drowsy driving?

It goes without saying that being well-rested and alert helps you perform best at all aspects of your job; from the quality of your handywork, to customer service, and this applies regardless of your position as an owner, manager or employee.

When you’re behind the wheel, however, tiredness can creep up on you, especially at the end of a busy day or if you’re getting in and out the vehicle regularly. An accident on company time, in a company vehicle can cause a major headache, and take time away from other important parts of the business, such as clients and projects, potentially stunting any new business growth.

Depending on the severity of the incident, you could lose an employee for a period of time, either through injury or by their licence being removed. If you’re running your own business, not being able to drive could seriously jeopardise your income.

How can employers manage the risks of drowsy driving?

Whether you’re self-employed or managing a business and have employees, you have to manage the risks present at your workplace, and this includes being on the road. Health and safety laws apply to work activities, the same way they do on a fixed site.

  1. Risk assessments

You should carry out risk assessments where necessary, as part of your health and safety arrangements. Consider elements such as the types of journeys, the driver, and the vehicle in your evaluation

2. Requirements for lone workers

A lone worker is someone who works by themselves without close or direct supervision, such as delivery drivers or couriers. You might consider having an agreed schedule for when you check in, which is more frequent than a typical static employee, and monitor their needs closely. 

3. Reporting systems and software

Having a set system for workers to report all work-related work incidents and near misses can give you greater insight into what’s working, and what isn’t. You can investigate any incidents to identify underlying causes, whether it’s a fault with a vehicle or someone’s shift pattern, which allows you to add any controls or make any necessary changes.

4. Journey length and timings

Consider how varying shift patterns can affect workers and their energy levels, for example, long working hours, the task that requires the journey, driving in the dark, or having routine or non-routine stops. Regular breaks are needed to allow for rest, but each circumstance will have different requirements.

5. Training and learning

Ensure you have the right training programmes for employees that drive as part of their jobs and provide up-to-date and regular training to keep everyone aware of the unique risks on the roads. If you’re driving as part of work yourself, you could complete this through an external organisation.

Identify learning methods that suit you, your business, and employees. It’s unlikely that endless pages of writing will be engaging, but on-the-job training or mobile apps can be efficient and effective, giving you the right resources for when you’re on the go.

Are tougher rules on fatigued driving on the way?

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.

New research has identified 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.

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.

We’ve got you covered

If you want to discuss your business and insurance needs, whether considering public liability or looking at switching your vehicle our friendly team of experts are here to help. Simply call your local business branch directly or pop into speak in-person.

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