Driving when you are tired can be as dangerous as driving while you are drunk. Find out how important it is to be well rested before you drive and what you can do to stay safe and alert behind the wheel.
- If you drive when you are tired, you risk your life and that of others on the road – tired drivers cause many fatal crashes in New Zealand every year.
- In New Zealand in 2015, fatigue was identified as a contributing factor in crashes that led to 45 deaths, 167 serious injuries and 622 minor injuries.
- The more time you spend on the road, the greater the risk is that you will have an accident. However, most fatigue-related crashes happen on trips that are less than 2 hours long and within 20 minutes of home.
- Although anyone who's tired is an unsafe driver, you are more at risk if you are young, a shift worker or have a sleep disorder. Alcohol and speed also increase your risk.
- You can avoid being a tired driver by preparing in advance and looking out for the warning signs of fatigue when you are driving.
How does tiredness affect my ability to drive?
If you stay awake for 17 hours and then drive, you'll behave as if you have a blood alcohol level of 50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood. That's the same blood alcohol level as New Zealand's legal drink drive limit for drivers 20 years and older, and it's way over the blood alcohol concentration level of zero for drivers under 20 years old.
If you drive after staying awake for 24 hours, you're as dangerous as someone with a blood alcohol level of 100 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood – that's twice the legal blood alcohol limit for adults!
Tips for staying alert at the wheel
Plan your trip
- Get plenty of sleep before a long journey.
- Don’t drive when you are normally sleeping, such as between 10pm and 6am.
- Stay somewhere overnight rather than travelling straight through on long journeys.
- Avoid driving after long-haul flights.
- Allow for rest stops to revive yourself.
- Take a break every 2 hours or every 100km.
- Get out of the car and walk around.
Eat and drink sensibly
- Eat healthy meals of light, fresh foods at your usual times.
- Avoid large meals and fatty, sugary foods as these will make you feel sleepy.
- Drink fluids to stay alert – stay hydrated with plenty of water.
Get fresh air and conversation
- Allow fresh air to flow into your vehicle – don’t use the recirculating-air function.
- Talking to someone or listening to music can help you to stay alert.
Share the driving
- If possible share the driving.
- Don’t drive over your allotted driving hours.
Take care with medications
- Avoid taking any medications before you drive that will make you sleepy, such as travel sickness tablets, sleeping pills, cold preparations and some pain killers and antihistamines.
- Read drug information sheets to check for side effects.
Don't ignore warning signs of fatigue
If you start to show any of the following signs of sleepiness while you are driving, it’s time to pull over and take a break:
- finding it hard to keep your eyes open
- feeling sleepy and sluggish
- yawning or rubbing your eyes repeatedly
- lack of concentration, daydreaming or slow reaction times
- impatience, feeling restless and irritable
- difficulty focusing or holding your head up
- drifting over the centre line or road edge
- changes in your driving speed, going slower or making larger steering corrections
- lapses in attention, such as missing road signs
- 'checking out' for a few seconds, called micro-sleep.
Micro-sleeps are involuntary sleeps caused by fatigue that only last a brief period, but can be very dangerous if they happen while you're driving. For example, if you micro-sleep for just 1 second while travelling at a 100 km/h, the car will have gone 28 metres without you in control.
What should I do if I feel sleepy?
- Don’t hang on till you get to where you’re going, pull over immediately in a safe place.
- Move to a passenger seat, lock the doors and take a power nap of 15-20 minutes.
- Don't sleep for more than 40 minutes or you will feel groggy when you wake up.
- Set an alarm or have someone phone to wake you up if you think you will oversleep.
- Walk around the vehicle when you wake up to help you become more alert.
- Wait at least 10 minutes after waking up before you start driving again.
NZ Road Code - driver fatigue New Zealand Transport Agency, 2010