Organisation: The British Medical Journal
Date uploaded: 24th June 2011
Date published/launched: Pre 2009
The report reviews why falling asleep while driving accounts for a considerable proportion of vehicle accidents under monotonous driving conditions.
Many of these accidents are related to work – for example, drivers of lorries, goods vehicles, and company cars. Time of day (circadian) effects are profound, with sleepiness being particularly evident during night shift work, and driving home afterwards.
Circadian factors are as important in determining driver sleepiness as is the duration of the drive, but only duration of the drive is built into legislation protecting professional drivers. Older drivers are also vulnerable to sleepiness in the mid-afternoon.
Possible pathological causes of driver sleepiness are discussed, but there is little evidence that this factor contributes greatly to the accident statistics. Sleep does not occur spontaneously without warning.
Drivers falling asleep are unlikely to recollect having done so, but will be aware of the precursory state of increasing sleepiness; probably reaching a state of fighting off sleep before an accident.
Self awareness of sleepiness is a better method for alerting the driver than automatic sleepiness detectors in the vehicle. None of these have been proved to be reliable and most have shortcomings. Putative counter measures to sleepiness, adopted during continued driving (cold air, use of car radio) are only effective for a short time.
The only safe counter measure to driver sleepiness, particularly when the driver reaches the stage of fighting sleep, is to stop driving, and – for example – take a 30 minute break encompassing a short (15 minute) nap or coffee (about 150 mg caffeine), which are very effective particularly if taken together. Exercise is of little use.
The conclusions of the report are that more education of employers and employees is needed about planning journeys, the dangers of driving while sleepy, and driving at vulnerable times of the day.
For more information contact:
Professor Jim Horne