Plan your rest breaks and avoid driver fatigue

September 2011

Stay alert, drive safely ! 

Driver fatigue
Whilst working as a Transport Manager in the Sultanate of Oman, responsible for the safety of around 400 owner drivers, I was devastated by the death of one of our young drivers. He was tragically taken from us when another driver using the same road fell asleep at the wheel of his vehicle. This sad death, like so many others on our roads, was entirely avoidable if the company responsible for the other driver had a driving policy and a safe journey management system in place which covered the hours a driver could work.

Driver fatigue is a factor in many thousands of road traffic accidents worldwide. Studies have shown that the groups particularly at risk tend to be young males, truck drivers, company car drivers and shift workers. There are also observable patterns in the times of day, (or night), when people, especially drivers, are most likely to fall asleep, known as circadian rhythms. Older drivers tend to be sleepier in the mid afternoon and younger drivers in the early hours of the morning. That said, we are all vulnerable to our circadian rhythms which typically have a period of sleepiness in the early hours of the morning and mid afternoon.

Human beings need sleep! Sleep is not a matter of choice it is essential and inevitable. The longer a person remains awake or suffers from reduced or interrupted sleep, the greater the need to fall asleep and the more difficult it will be to resist falling asleep. Eventually sleep will overcome the strongest efforts and intentions to stay awake. A lack of sleep or an extended driving shift is as dangerous as alcohol and will cause slower reactions, reduced vigilance, alertness and concentration. It will also affect our decision making and information processing skills.

The need for sleep varies but most humans need around 8 hours sleep per day to function normally, taking less than 5 hours sleep the previous night can severely impair your performance. Loss of sleep is cumulative, that is losing one or two hours sleep regularly over a period of time can cause chronic sleepiness and the only effective remedy is to sleep. The general tactics employed by drivers to attempt to fight sleep and stay awake such as opening the windows, turning down the AC, turning up the radio, or stopping and going for a walk have been found to be ineffective. The reprieve provided being very short lived, on average around 10 minutes. The only effective proven tactic is to take a short sleep of around 15 minutes duration; even this though will only provide a reprieve of around 1 hour. The only really effective remedy is to get some good quality sleep.

How do you recognise driver fatigue?

A number of symptoms can suggest driver fatigue, including yawning, tired eyes, boredom, restlessness, aching, the desire to eat or drink, an inability to remember the last segment of the road, over-steering and difficulty concentrating. Drivers who notice these symptoms should pull over to rest. Many major highways provide rest stops for this purpose; however it is important to pull all the way off the highway into these rest stops to avoid collisions.

What can you do if you feel sleepy during a journey?

Most drivers are aware when they feel tired but some make the decision to continue, thinking they will get to their next destination and sleep, many do not make it to their next destination or they are involved in an accident on the way. You will know when you feel tired and you should pull off the road at a safe place and rest. If you are in a sleeper cab sleep in the cab, if not then find a hotel or rest house, if you still have some distance to go before a hotel then take a short nap and continue, but remember the effects of the nap will quickly wear off. Remember to call your Journey Manager, it is possible that they can make arrangements for you to sleep at a rest house close to you; they are there to help!

What can you do to avoid feeling sleepy during a journey?

Make sure you get a good night’s sleep before setting off on a long journey and if your trip is over several nights ensure that you get a good nights sleep whilst you are out. In an attempt to protect their personnel some company rules will only allow you to work for 12 hours in a day, of which no more than 10 hours should be driving. You should also be required to take a rest for a minimum of 1 hour after every 4 hours of driving for heavy vehicles and a 15 minute break every 2 hours for light vehicles. If you follow your journey plans the rest breaks should be planned for you. Unfortunately the 24 hour society in which we now live seems to pressurise people to sacrifice sleep in order to do other things, without realising the negative health effects or the effects on the ability to perform tasks such as driving.

Remember you are your own supervisor when driving and your safety, as well as that of other road users, is in your hands. Please be a responsible and professional driver.

Jane Sneddon
Director - Global Road Safety


UK Road Safety & Global Road Safety joined strengths in 2009 to form a road safety partnership with the aim of contributing to the reduction of injuries & death on the world's roads. Our courses contribute to the reduction of Injuries, Financial Costs & Liability Exposure arising from increasing risks that organisations face from their fleet vehicles. We have developed a deserved reputation for the quality of our training products along with the aftercare & support provided to our customers.


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