Beware 'micro sleep' menace: killer that stalks tired drivers
Here's what to do: Our Road Safety Authority expert explains what happens and how to avoid it
Following the recent Dublin Circuit Criminal Court ruling win in which a man was jailed for two years and disqualified from driving for 10 after falling asleep at the wheel, there has been considerable interest in driver fatigue and what has been referred to as a 'micro sleep'.
In handing down the sentence the Judge said the scale of the consequences meant he had to impose a custodial sentence and to send out a message that fatigue has to be in the minds of all drivers.
Media reports of the trial focused on what are known as 'Micro Sleeps', to highlight that a driver doesn't just suddenly fall asleep at the wheel. It's a gradual process.
The Sean O'Rourke Show discussed the topic with Professor Jim Horne, Head of the Sleep Research Laboratory at Loughborough University in the UK. Prof Horne is a leading expert on fatigue and has advised the RSA on it. Sean asked him if a driver can suddenly fall asleep at the wheel. The answer was an emphatic NO. People are aware of increasing sleepiness, but chose to ignore it. This can have disastrous consequences.
Fatigue is the physical and mental impairment brought on by not enough. Ideally, we need an average of seven to eight hours' good quality sleep every night. Otherwise you build up what's known as a sleep debt.
Drivers suffering from this are at risk of 'nodding off' while driving and substantially increase the risk of being involved in a crash. It's estimated that driver tiredness could play a role in up to 1-in-5 fatal road crashes in Ireland.
Fatigue-related collisions are more likely to happen between 2am and 6am, and mid-afternoon between 2pm and 4pm - times when our body clock is at its lowest.
What also tends to happen is that fatigue-related crashes are more severe in outcome. In fact, they are three times more likely to be fatal or result in a serious injury because of the high impact speed and lack of avoidance action.
Most at risk are those who try to fight the effects of sleep while driving. But there are some who are more at risk than others. Males aged 18 to 30 are top of the list. They tend to be over confident about their driving ability and believe they can handle the situation.
Shift workers, in particular night workers, are more likely to have disrupted sleep patterns so are at risk.
Bus and goods vehicle drivers need to be mindful of the dangers of tiredness at the wheel.
Sometimes these drivers can be under huge time pressures and will often push themselves to the limit.
If a driver persists in fighting sleep while driving, the impairment level is the same as drink driving. Tactics like turning up the volume on the radio, opening the window, chewing gum, or smoking a cigarette don't fix the problem. The only cure for tiredness is sleep.
So what is a Micro Sleep? Well, as we become increasingly sleepy we start to drift in and out of consciousness and experience 'micro sleeps'.
A micro sleep can last for up to 10 seconds and if you experience one there is nobody in control of the vehicle. You can have a micro sleep with your eyes wide open.
If a driver has a 'micro sleep' for just four seconds while travelling at 100kmh, the car will have travelled roughly 30 car lengths, without a driver in control.
So what should you do? Like our TV ad says. Don't ignore the signs. Stop. Sip. Sleep
Stop in a safe place. Sip a caffeinated drink like coffee. And Sleep: Take a 15 minute nap.
As it takes roughly 20 minutes for the caffeine to kick in, it should start to take effect when you wake up. Stretch your legs and you should be able to continue driving for another hour or so.