I have driven while (mildly) drunk, and also when (very) tired. Both can be dangerous, but in different ways. However, there are severe penalties for driving with small amounts of alcohol in your bloodstream, but almost none* for driving while excessively tired.

* Skoob notes that in Texas, driving while tired is considered to be reckless driving, and is almost guaranteed to see you spending some time in jail.

This personal experience was borne out by a recent TV programme (Fifth Gear on UK Channel 5) which set out to test which was more dangerous: drinking or tiredness.

The basic result of the programme will be familiar to most drivers: Driving while tired is not really an issue while driving through town. There is no problem staying awake and attentive. At night, on a long straight highway, with few other vehicles, however, and it is a completely different matter. Your eyes droop, your concentration fades and you start to weave from lane to lane, or maybe even fall asleep at the wheel.

Driving while drunk, on the other hand is easy when on the freeway. So long as you keep going in a more or less straight line, it is easy to keep the speed constant and remain within the lane markings for hundreds of miles. In town, however, with new dangers rushing at you all the time, it is all too easy to misjudge a turn, or get aggressive at another driver who makes a mistake.

If you have one driver who is drunk and another who is tired, then neither should drive. But if you absolutely must drive somewhere, as a matter of life and death, put the tired driver in charge through town and the drunkard behind the wheel on the freeway. But bear in mind that either might be the death of you.

All the statistics show that drivers who are over-tired are just as dangerous as those who have drunk too much alcohol. Yet drink-driving is condemned and reviled, while tired driving barely gets any attention.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that driver fatigue was the primary cause of 100 000 accidents reported to the police each year. Other statistics show that younger drivers are more at risk from accidents caused by driver fatigue.

The problem is, of course, not limited to the USA. Road safety authorities in the UK, Australia and many other countries report similar concerns over motorists who drive while tired.

In the UK, driver fatigue leads to more deaths on motorways than alcohol does. Just one example of how dangerous it can be: in February 2001 a driver fell asleep at the wheel near Selby. His Land Rover came off the motorway and ended up on a railway track, with an express train bearing down. The driver lived to tell the tale, but the train smashed into his trailer, derailed and then smashed into a goods train coming the other way. Ten people died.

There are many research programmes going on around the world to understand the process better. They all offer similar advice:

  • Plan ahead if you're going to be in a car for more than an hour at a stretch.
  • Avoid driving during the "red-eye hours" of midnight and 7 a.m.
  • Consider putting off your car trip until the morning, then get a good night's sleep in the meantime.
  • If you are traveling with other adults, take turns at the wheel often.
  • Take frequent rest stops, especially if you are driving alone.

However, people often claim it is impossible to do these things. Faced with the choice of a small risk of death or disfigurement, people often choose to drive while tired. If you are a gambler, then the best answer, according to some British researchers is to drink two cans of a functional energy drink, like Red Bull or Jolt Cola. The energy rush from a single can, they say, will reduce the effects of normal tiredness, such as the mid-afternoon dip around 2pm. Two cans will almost eliminate this level of sleepiness for around 90 minutes after the drink takes effect.

Young people most affected

Most of those who are affected are young people. According to the US-based National Sleep Foundation, who studied the subject in year 2000, around 20 percent of all motorists dozed off while at the wheel in the previous 12 months, but that figure rose to a quarter in the young adult age range.

Other findings:

  • 51 percent of American adults confess that they have driven while drowsy.
  • 24 percent of 18-29 year-old drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel during the past year.
  • Older people fare better and are more alert. Only 15 percent of people 30 to 64 years old are likely to nod off in traffic, and just 6 percent of drivers 65 and older nap on the road.
  • Car crashes that result from drowsy driving are most common in younger people, especially 20 year olds.
  • Forty-two percent of adults become stressed when they are sleepy behind the wheel, while 32 percent are impatient and make reckless decisions.
  • Both younger people (22 percent) and adults (12 percent) hit the gas pedal when they are sleepy.

How to tell if you are over-tired

  • eyes closing or going out of focus by themselves
  • trouble keeping one’s head up
  • inability to stop yawning
  • having wandering and disconnected thoughts
  • inability to remember driving the last few miles
  • drifting between lanes
  • tailgating
  • missing traffic signs
  • jerking the car back into the lane, and/or drifting off the road

(National Sleep Foundation, 1996).

Sources / further information

  • http://www.mattress.com/sleepwell/driving.php
  • http://www.bridgewater.edu/~atrupe/ENG101/socsci1.htm
  • http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/hu/groups/sleep/arrive.htm

This write-up inspired by TheDeadGuy's write-up under Driving under the influence.

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