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Driver Fatigue: We Are All Responsible

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Whenever various organizations across the country publish data on the main causes of road accidents, it’s easy for individuals to view them abstractly, and that it doesn’t concern them.

For example, someone may feel that they don’t represent a risk on the road, because they NEVER drive while inebriated. The person who makes a habit of always putting their smartphone away may similarly feel that nothing will happen to them in their vehicle, or at the very least that they don’t run the risk of causing an accident due to being distracted by their phone.

In fact, the phenomenon of de-responsibilization is a common thread running through society today. Very often, thing X that happened is no one’s fault.

And yet, there is one factor that is known to be behind a growing number of road accidents that no one can evade responsibility for – without exception.

And that factor is driver fatigue. If you’re a member of the human race, you need sleep, at some point or other.

The data is clear: drowsiness and operating a motorized vehicle are a bad mix, and sometimes a deadly one. And yet we have all, at some point if not many times, take the wheel of a vehicle while tired or sleepy.

Photo: FCA

But how many people really know how much of a danger that represents for the individual and for others on the road?  Did you know, for example, that after being awake for a certain number of hours without sleep, people’s reaction times are similar to those when they’re inebriated?

To shed more light on the phenomenon and the danger it poses, we spoke with Professor Charles Morin, professor and researcher at Université de Laval in Quebec and Canada Research Chair in Sleeping Disorders. This specialist in the human sleep process provided us with quite a reality check.

What Prof. Morin has to say might make you think a lot differently about getting behind the wheel of your vehicle when you’re drowsy.

Photo: Honda

Very quickly, let’s run first through the precise definition of drowsiness, its symptoms, what groups of people are most at risk and the solutions that are at hand.

1 — Drowsiness

“Drowsiness is a direct consequence of sleep deprivation,” explains Charles Morin. To help explain the phenomenon, the professor cited the results of various studies on the subject. Among the notable conclusions of these studies:

— Lab studies help determine the level of drowsiness of an individual. In one example, a person is called on to take five 20-minute naps over the course of a day, at two-hour intervals. People who are not sleep-deprived are not able to fall asleep during these nap times. Those who manage to fall asleep within five minutes are sleep-deprived, and it would be dangerous for them to be driving a vehicle.

— Some people accumulate what’s called sleep debt, which involves several sleep-shortened nights. As the debt grows, the level of risk when driving grows.

- People need at least six hours of sleep every night; any less makes for a person at risk when operating a vehicle.

Photo: Hyundai

2 – At-risk groups of people

It’s clear from the data that any amount of sleep deprivation increase the risk of a road accident. However, some groups of people are more prone to drowsiness at the wheel than others.

Some of those groups are:

— People who work 50-to-60 hours per week AND who sleep fewer than six hours per night.

— People who work at night. The natural biological rhythms of human beings are clear: we’re meant to sleep at night.

— Young people, more specifically those between the ages 17 and 25. Studies have shown that people in this demographic group often underestimate the effects of sleep deprivation and drowsiness, and overestimate their ability to resist them. They also tend to underestimate the risks that arise from driving a vehicle while sleepy.

— Elderly people, especially in the afternoon. This is the time of day when medications are often making themselves felt, as the systems of elderly people needs more time to metabolize them. This can aggravate fatigue.

— People suffering from a sleep disorder, by which we mean those who have chronic insomnia and sleep apnea, for example.

Photo: BMW

3 — The symptoms

These are not generally hard to discern. For the most part, people know when they’re tired or sleepy. The signs are obvious: yawning, itchy eyes, moments of distraction, etc. At the wheel, some additional signs may be forgetting to check the side-view mirrors, or taking the wrong route. According to Prof. Morin, we are under an obligation to react as soon as these symptoms start to appear. His recommendations are straightforward:

— As soon as any symptoms appear, the driver must bring the vehicle to a stop as soon as possible.

— Studies have determined that a person taking the wheel after they’ve been awake for less than 15 hours straight is not at increased risk, as long as they have not accumulated a sleep debt. After 16 sleepless hours, however, the level of risk grows exponentially. The level of performance in the act of driving diminishes.

— Taking the wheel after being awake for 16 or 17 hours straight is equivalent to driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.05.

— Once a person passes 18 hours without sleep, it is akin to driving in a state of inebriation (blood-alcohol level of 0.08, or more).

The problem, as Prof. Morin rightly points out, as that the signs are more difficult to detect that inebriation from alcohol. “What’s more, people tend to overestimate their capacities,” he adds.

4— The solutions

To solve the problem of driver fatigue, there aren’t that many solutions out there. The most obvious and most straightforward one, of course, focuses on prevention and education. It’s crucial that people be able to recognize the signs of fatigue, and even more important that they pay them heed. Any case of driving while drowsy can prove deadly, after all.

Clearly, it’s not worth the risk.

As for the statistics on the percentage of accidents caused by driver fatigue, Prof. Morin adds a sobering thought: “Since there is no sure way to determine whether a road accident was caused by drowsiness, it’s reasonable to assume that the statistics are underestimating the phenomenon.”

We may be dealing with an epidemic of fatigue-related accidents and we don’t even know it.

In the end, the responsibility lies with us. These statistics say it clearly: along with speeding and alcohol, fatigue is one of the major factors in causing road accidents in Canada.

Photo: FCA

Charles Morin ended our discussion with a bit of advice that drivers would do well to follow:

“As soon as you feel drowsy at the wheel, stop immediately. The best thing to do is to have a 20-minute nap. Also, drink two coffees before you have your nap; the effects of the caffeine will kick in right around when you wake up and will help you stay properly awake for the subsequent drive.”

Simple advice, that you’ll really want to share with your family and friends.

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