Fatigued driving

Fatigue is often referred to as the hidden killer because many drivers are unaware they are experiencing its effects until it is too late.

Fatigue is a major contributing factor to fatal road crashes, but the exact number of crashes involving fatigue may currently be under-reported (Queensland Transport 2006, p10 and 2008, p17).

International research suggests that between 15-30% of all road crashes are caused by drivers falling asleep behind the wheel (Lindheim 2008, p34).
Research also suggests that fatigue is more likely to be a contributing factor in crashes which have involved long trips, long periods of non-stop driving and trips during normal sleeping times when the driver has not had sufficient sleep (Australian Transport Council 2008, p44). Drivers who have sleep disorders, take medication, are driving alone or are driving on long rural roads are also at higher risk of being involved in a fatigue-related crash (Queensland Transport 2008, p17).

High-risk times for fatigue-related crashes appear to be mid-afternoon and between midnight and dawn. Driving on less than five hours’ sleep in the previous 24 hours raises the risk of having a crash threefold (Connor et al. 2002).

Tips to avoid driver fatigue

Driver fatigue is a major safety issue on Queensland’s roads. This episode of RACQ TV explores the dangers of driving tired.

While fatigue management programs, driving hour restrictions and chain of responsibility legislation have been introduced to address fatigue problems in the heavy vehicle industry, fatigue is particularly difficult to detect and enforce for the private driver.

The ways in which a driver can be monitored and warned of the onset of fatigue are continually being researched and developed. However, until there is widespread availability of reliable technology that enables a driver impaired by fatigue to be alerted and/or detected, public education and advertising campaigns will continue to be necessary to make drivers of all vehicles aware of the dangers and early warning signs of fatigue and what they can do to minimise their risks of driving while tired.

Other current and past measures used in Queensland to combat fatigue-related crashes include education and advertising campaigns, engineering approaches such as adding rest areas, rumble strips, road duplication, crash barriers, audio-tactile line-marking and better road shoulders, the driver reviver program and fatigue management programs for heavy vehicle drivers.

It is important to keep in mind that many of these measures only help reduce the risk of having a fatigue-related crash. There needs to be a conscious effort to address the core problem i.e., that quality sleep remains the only real cure or preventative measure for fatigue.

Advice for motorists:

The best way to avoid fatigue crashes is to PLAN:

  • Your trips well in advance.  RACQ maps, the online trip planner and the Road Reporting Hotline (13 19 40) can help.
  • To get plenty of sleep before you leave.
  • To take regular rest breaks (including power naps if necessary).
  • To share the driving if possible.
  • To eat well-balanced meals along the way, without consuming alcohol (which also makes you drowsy).
  • To drive no more than 8-10 hours in a day.
  • To stay somewhere overnight if you’re on a long trip.
Do not continue to drive while tired and do not rely on short-term remedies to offset the symptoms of fatigue (e.g., turning up music, drinking coffee/energy drinks etc.).

The only cure or preventative measure for fatigue is sleep.
    1. Further research the factors leading to fatigue-related crashes, including categories of road users most at risk. Educate and change beliefs and behaviours of the community, particularly identified target groups:
      - about the dangers of driving when fatigued (e.g., motorists driving in rural and remote areas);
      - not to depend on unreliable or short-term remedies to offset the symptoms
      - how to manage the fatigue problem, e.g., enough regular, good quality sleep, treatments for sleep disorders, advice on preparing and planning trips, the need for taking regular breaks en-route, getting adequate sleep including power naps (minimum 15 minutes), campaigns for overseas visitors and commercial drivers.
    2. Provide, enhance and promote road-based fatigue countermeasures, e.g., rumble strips, audible edge lines and a network of quality roadside rest areas at strategic locations along key travel routes adequately signed and marked on maps.
    3. Reduce the severity of fatigue-related crashes by designing and improving roads and roadside environments to address head-on and run off road crashes, e.g., road duplication, crash barriers (median and roadside), rumble lines, overtaking lanes, removal of roadside hazards.
    4. Research and develop measures and devices that can monitor and detect driver fatigue from both inside the vehicle and the external environment and apply it to both heavy vehicles and buses and light vehicle drivers.
    5. Investigate and implement enforcement opportunities using this technology.
    6. Further encourage the implementation of fatigue management programs that ensure safe working conditions in the heavy vehicle industry.
  • Australian Transport Council 2008, National Road Safety Action Plan 2009 and 2010, Australian Transport Council, Canberra, ACT, Australia.

    Connor, J., Norton, R., Ameratunga, S., Robinson, E., Civil, I., Dunn, R., Bailey, J., and Jackson, R. 2002, ‘Driver sleepiness and risk of serious injury to car occupants; population based case control study’, British Medical Journal, Vol. 324: 1125.

    Data Analysis Unit 2009, Personal Correspondence to RACQ, 03/06/09, Queensland Transport, Brisbane, QLD, Australia.

    Green, M. 2008, ‘Fatigue in Traffic’ from Green, M. (Ed), Nordic Road and Transport Research No. 2 2008, VTI, Linköping, Sweden.

    Lindheim, C.W., 2008, ‘Traffic Safety Campaigns in Norway’ from Green, M. (Ed), Nordic Road and Transport Research No. 2 2008, VTI, Linköping, Sweden.

    Queensland Transport 2006, Queensland Road Safety Action Plan 2006-2007: safe4life, Queensland Government, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

    Queensland Transport 2008, Queensland Road Safety Action Plan 2008-2009: safe4life, Queensland Government, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

Things to note

The information in this article has been prepared for general information purposes only and is not intended as legal advice or specific advice to any particular person. Any advice contained in the document is general advice, not intended as legal advice or professional advice and does not take into account any person’s particular circumstances. Before acting on anything based on this advice you should consider its appropriateness to you, having regard to your objectives and needs.