How to avoid driving tired


Published 16 May 2023
Last updated 16 May 2023

In this blog we’ll look at the way that tiredness affects driving and explore ways that you can stay alert and reach your destination safely.

I don’t know about you, but I never sleep very well in summer. There’s so much light around in the mornings, that my mind tells me it’s time to get up, but my body (which still feels like it’s on wintertime!) wants to grab as much sleep as it can. Getting up usually involves a bleary-eyed stumble in the general direction of the kettle, followed by an unseemly battle with a carton of milk.

Hopefully, the closest you come to disaster is when the alarm clock fails to go off. But there’s a general point here about tiredness and how it affects us. In the summertime story, I am describing what happens when I feel fatigued. I can’t concentrate, and focusing on simple tasks is difficult.

Now, imagine feeling like that when you’re driving. You haven’t taken a break for some time. You didn’t sleep that well the night before, and you’ve had a busy day. Worse, there’s still another hour to go before you reach your destination. Your eyes feel heavy, your hands slip from the wheel and…well, you can guess the rest.

The causes of driver fatigue

The causes of driver fatigue are complex and often involve one – or several of – the following factors:

  • Poor or irregular sleep
  • Lack of suitable rest breaks
  • Stress, anxiety and depression
  • Time of day
  • Medication

To make matters even more complicated, research suggests that drowsiness, or falling asleep at the wheel, is most likely to occur between 2am and 6am and 2pm and 4pm. This is because our bodies naturally ‘dip’ at that time, which means our concentration and energy levels are affected. So, sometimes we might be dealing with a lack of sleep at the same time as fighting our natural energy cycles.

How dangerous is driver fatigue?

According to the road safety charity Brake, 10-20 percent of all crashes are caused by driver fatigue. However, as the police cannot test for tiredness (yet!), that number could be a lot higher.

If you do end up in a road traffic incident and the police think that fatigue was a factor, then the penalties can be severe. ‘Tired driving’ is not a specific offence, but death by dangerous driving is and it carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. The best thing to do is to avoid putting yourself in danger and either stay home or take regular rest breaks to manage your energy levels.

How to stay safe – and stay alert

The first thing to think about is whether you really need to make your journey. When you’re tired, your judgement is unreliable. This makes controlling your vehicle safely and scanning for hazards more difficult and puts you – and other road users in danger. So, if you don’t have to go out don’t.

If you do have to go out, there are still things you can do to help keep yourself safe:

  • Prepare. If you know you’ve got a long drive ahead of you, make sure you get as much rest as you can before you leave
  • Plan your journey. Work out where you can take rest breaks and, if there’s an opportunity to break your journey up with an overnight stay, take the opportunity to do so
  • If you’re travelling with another driver, ask them to drive while you take a rest
  • Try not to eat a heavy meal before you drive as it can make you sleepy
  • Don’t drive for more than 8 hours in a day. If you’ve been continuously driving for two hours, take a break
  • If you start to feel tired and show signs of fatigue such as yawning, watery eyes, lack of focus or heavy eyelids, don’t wait to see if it passes. Stop in a safe place and take a rest. Safe places are motorway services or laybys off the main carriageway
  • Try to avoid driving during hours when you would normally be asleep
  • If you take medication, speak to your doctor about its effects on your driving. Remember you must also tell DVLA about any medical conditions that affect your driving.

Where to find out more…

Well we’ve come to the end of our journey through the pitfalls of driving tired, but that doesn’t mean your learning has to stop here. There’s plenty more advice on our blog pages and loads of articles covering every aspect of driving in the Safe Driving for Life advice section. And if that’s not enough, you can also visit the shop and get yourself a copy of the industry standard safe driving manual, Driving – the essential skills.

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