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Tiredness and driving – what you need to know

Apr 23, 2021

Everyone knows you shouldn’t drive when you’re tired. Your body tells you it’s a bad idea. Road signs remind you to avoid it. And the stats make a pretty concrete case against it.

Yet, still there are times we do it anyway.

In this article we’ll take a look at some of the facts about driving while tired, and how it could affect your young driver insurance if you have an accident caused by tiredness. We’ll also give you tips on how to stay alert and help you spot the warning signs that tell you it’s time to take a break.

Driving when tired is dangerous

Driver fatigue causes thousands of accidents every year. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), driver fatigue may contribute to up to 20% of road accidents, and up to 25% of fatal and serious accidents.

Road accidents caused by tiredness tend to involve high speed crashes because when a driver falls asleep behind the wheel, they are unable to brake or swerve to avoid or reduce the impact.

The more tired you feel, the longer it will take you to react to a situation. You are also less vigilant and less able to concentrate – both key elements of safe driving.

According to research carried out for the AA, 37% of UK drivers say they have been so tired they were scared of falling asleep behind the wheel. Meanwhile, 13% admit to having fallen asleep while driving a vehicle.

Driver fatigue may contribute to up to 20% of road accidents, and up to 25% of fatal and serious accidents.

Why driving makes you tired

It’s hard to see how driving a vehicle can make you feel tired. You’re sitting down, making minimal movements, and only thinking about one thing.

But there’s more to driving than just getting from A to B. Here are some of the reasons being behind the wheel can make you feel so tired.

–        Time of day and night: The human body is programmed to sleep during the night and be awake during the day.

But when our internal body clock is disrupted (for example driving home after a night shift) driver fatigue can set in.

If you’re driving at times when you’d usually be asleep, you need to take extra care on the roads.

–        Feeling hungry or dehydrated: In the same way your car needs to be refuelled, your body does, too. A sugary snack or drink will give you some instant energy, but it will only last so long. And when the slump hits, it can hit hard.

Don’t just think about when to eat before driving long distances, also think about what kind of food will boost your energy for longer.

Low GI foods will release energy slowly and more consistently so you can avoid the dreaded slump.

–        Long stretches of empty road: Clear, empty roads are a good thing in terms of getting to your destination quickly.

But without other road users, roundabouts and different speed zones, they can also become fairly monotonous – especially when those long, straight roads continue for miles and miles.

This kind of monotony can make the best drivers feel drowsy and less alert. Be aware if you have been travelling on a single stretch of road for a long period of time and find somewhere safe to take a break.

–        Lack of interaction: Driving long distances alone is very different to driving long distances with a companion.

Having a travel buddy means you’re able to share the driving duties, you have someone to talk to, and they may be able to pick up on any signs of drowsiness.

–        Your age and your gender: According to studies, younger males aged between 16 and 29 years appear to be at higher risk of being involved in a sleep-related road accident than other demographics.

There are different theories about why this is the case, the most obvious being that younger age groups require more sleep than older age groups and can lead lifestyles that result in them being sleep deprived.

Numerous studies have also found that males are more likely to be involved in sleep-related crashes than females. But just because you’re a young driver, doesn’t mean you’re an unsafe one.

With young driver insurance based on telematics  you can prove just how safe a driver you are. It can also help you save money on your policy renewals.

If you’re driving at times when you’d usually be asleep, you need to take extra care on the roads.

A time lapse of a a busy motorway corner at night
Warning signs of driver fatigue

Driver fatigue can happen for a number of reasons – anything from a stressful day at work to interrupted or reduced sleep patterns.

Whatever the reason, drowsy driving should be avoided. Here are some of the key signs you need to take a break from driving:

–        Your eyes are struggling to stay focused

–        You’re repeatedly blinking and your eyelids feel heavy

–        You can’t stop yawning

–        Your eyes feel itchy and you are continually rubbing them

–        Your mind is continually wandering

–        You’re repeatedly drifting out of your lane

–        You’re tailgating or travelling too close to other vehicles

–        You don’t spot road signs or miss exits

–        You can’t remember the last few miles you’ve just driven

–        You feel restless, impatient, irritable or aggressive

While these signs are not dangerous by themselves, they are clear indicators that your body is crying out for a rest.

It’s important that you’re mindful of these signs and take action before it’s too late.

How to stay alert behind the wheel

Long working hours and lengthy periods of time spent behind the wheel are more likely to result in tiredness-related accidents. Winding down the window or turning up the radio can only do so much.

Luckily, there are things you can do to reduce the risk of falling asleep while in the driver’s seat.

–        Make sure you are well rested before driving long distances

–        Do not drive if you are taking medication that causes drowsiness

–        If you start to feel tired, pull over (in a safe place) and take a break

–        Stretch your legs, drink a cup of coffee and/or have a nap (of around 15 to 20 minutes) before getting back on the road

–        Try to avoid driving during the hours you would usually be sleeping – for most people, that means not driving between midnight and 6am

–        Also try to avoid driving after you’ve eaten a large meal. A full stomach can make you pretty sleepy

–        Be extra vigilant when your journey involves long stretches of motorway driving

–        If possible, share the driving

–        If your journey is more than 12 hours, make sure you plan an overnight stop along the way

–        Always plan ahead, allowing enough time for the journey and taking regular breaks

Regardless of whether you’ve been driving for years or only recently passed your test, it’s vital you stay alert behind the wheel. If you need a bit of an extra push, a young driver insurance policy based on telematics, for example, gives you an incentive to drive safely.

Long working hours and lengthy periods of time spent behind the wheel are more likely to result in tiredness-related accidents. Winding down the window or turning up the radio can only do so much.

A young driver driving along a motorway as the sun sets in the distance
The facts about sleep problems

We all have our own sleep patterns, habits and issues. Plenty of us complain we don’t get enough sleep, and many struggle with the quality of their sleep rather than the quantity.

According to research by Formulate Health, 36% of UK adults experience difficulty getting to sleep on a weekly basis, while nearly half struggle to get to sleep at least once a month.

Feeling tired while driving is something that could happen to any of us. However, some people have conditions that make them more susceptible to tiredness than others.

Statistics show that more than 29,000 people in England were diagnosed with a sleep disorder in 2017. One sleep disorder in particular can pose a real risk if you’re a driver.

Obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome (OSAS) causes excessive daytime sleepiness and has a number of symptoms, including:

–        Loud snoring

–        Noisy and laboured breathing while asleep

–        Repetitive gasping or snorting during sleep

–        Not feeling refreshed after waking up

–        Poor memory and concentration

–        Headaches

–        Irritability, mood swings and depression

However, with the right treatment, having OSAS doesn’t have to impact someone’s driving, so speak to a professional if you are concerned.

If you are diagnosed with a ‘notifiable’ medical condition or disability (i.e. anything that could impact your ability to drive) it’s up to you as a driver to inform the DVLA.

You can check which health conditions might affect your driving on gov.uk, and it is advisable to speak with your GP if you have any concerns or questions.

As well as letting the DVLA know of any sleep or health conditions, it’s also important to be honest when applying for a car insurance policy.

Sleep problems can affect people of all ages, not just older generations. So, if you’ve recently passed your test and are applying for young driver insurance, make sure you are completely honest about all health conditions – sleep-related or otherwise.

Always speak with your provider if you are unsure whether a condition could impact your policy.

36% of UK adults experience difficulty getting to sleep on a weekly basis, while nearly half struggle to get to sleep at least once a month.

A couple asleep in a bed
Staying on the right side of the law

Any accident that happens because a driver has fallen asleep at the wheel will usually be classed as dangerous driving.

According to Section 2 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, dangerous driving is when “driving falls far below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver and it would be obvious that driving in that way would be dangerous.”

The Act also states that dangerous means “danger either of injury to any person or of serious damage to property.”

It can include driving aggressively, overtaking in dangerous locations and racing other vehicles. Dangerous driving also covers “driving when unfit, including having an injury, being unable to see clearly, not taking prescribed drugs, or being sleepy.”

Depending on the severity of the incident, dangerous driving offences are dealt with by the Magistrates or Crown Court. If a driver is found guilty of dangerous driving, they could be issued a hefty fine, have their licence taken away or even be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison.

Sleeping overnight in your car

While causing dangerous driving as a result of being tired when behind the wheel is a criminal offence, preventing that from happening by taking a nap in your car is definitely not.

If anything, catching a bit of shut-eye in your car is positively encouraged. Rule 91 of the Highway Code recommends taking a “minimum break of 15 minutes after every two hours of driving”. And if you’re tired, it suggests having a “short nap” for at least 15 minutes.

Of course, you can’t just pull over wherever you fancy and fall asleep, there are some rules you need to follow. For example, you can’t park on double yellow lines or pull into the hard shoulder of a motorway.

If you are driving on a motorway, you’ll ideally need to pull into the next service station area where you are free to take a nap – as long as you’re not dozing for too long.

Some service stations have strict rules about how long you can stay, and will issue you with a fine if you overstay the set time period. If you think you might oversleep, it’s worth setting an alarm on your phone.

If you are planning to fall asleep in your car, it’s also a good idea to lock your doors and open a window just enough to let in a bit of fresh air.

While no one will bat an eyelid if they see a tired driver snoozing in their car in a service station car park, the same cannot be said if you’re asleep in your car in a residential area.

Local residents may be concerned about your safety or their own. You should also check before you pull into a car park for a sleep – some may lock their gates or prevent overnight stays.

And if you’re thinking about sleeping off a big night out in your car – don’t. If the police catch you, you can be prosecuted for being “drunk in charge of a motor vehicle,” even if you had zero intention of putting the key in the ignition. Just remember: there are some decisions even the best young driver insurance policy can’t cover you for.

Drive safe, save money

Car insurance helps you stay safe and feel secure when behind the wheel of your car.

At Smartdriverclub, our black box insurance calculates a driver’s risk of being involved in an accident based on their driving habits. Whether you’re looking for young driver insurance, or are well-seasoned behind the wheel, this data can earn you discounts when you come to renew your policy.

To find out about our young driver insurance or how telematics insurance can benefit you, get in touch with the Smartdriverclub team today.