Staying Awake

According to Professor Jim Horne of Loughborough University's Sleep Research Centre, more people are killed on our roads due to sleepiness than through drinking and driving.

Not surprisingly monotonous roads such as motorways are often the problem areas, and because of the high speeds involved the consequences are often serious. Whilst bus, truck and coach drivers are strictly monitored, drivers and riders are particularly at risk because there are no rules which regulate the amount we can drive.

Part of the problem is that the body has natural biorhythms and is programmed to fall asleep at certain times. Not surprisingly the highest risk time is between 2am and 6am, but fewer people are aware there is a similar period between 12am and 4pm, which is made worse if you have had a heavy meal or if you are an older driver. Shiftworkers are particularly at risk because their sleep patterns are disrupted.

Simulator research shows a driver will often start to feel sleepy around 40 minutes before the real problems occur, but typically they drive through this stage rather than pull over and take a break. Many drivers realise they are getting drowsy, but do not realise how badly they are driving, and try to push on - often the end of their journey is only a few miles ahead - and deliberately take a chance. Witnesses to accidents involving a dozing driver often report that the vehicle was being driven erratically before the accident occurred.

Many drivers try to overcome tiredness by opening the windows or turning the stereo up loud but every moment you spend on the road when you are sleepy is a moment too long.

Tips to avoid drowsiness:

    plan your journey and factor in time to take a break - 15 minutes in every two hours is recommended
    if you start to feel sleepy take a minimum of a half hour break
    avoid heavy meals during breaks
    tea and coffee will give you a temporary lift but if necessary have a snooze
    if you start to feel sleepy, stop as soon as it is safe. If you are on the motorway, don't push on to the next service area, pull off at the next exit!
    if you can't stop immediately (for instance you are between junctions on the motorway) get some fresh air - open the windows or lift the visor - it may help a little
    if you start to doze off, stop, even on the motorway! The hard shoulder is for emergency use and in my opinion this is an emergency! This may be against the strict police interpretation of the rules for use of the hard shoulder so get out/off and kick the tyres or something - even five minutes will wake you up enough to get safely to the next exit

And finally, just in case you think you can't fall asleep on a bike, you can! It happened to me years ago when I was a courier.

It was a hot summer's day, around 3 in the afternoon. I'd been riding since about 9am with just a couple of short breaks and had just passed the last exit before a 20 mile stretch of the M26/M25 where there is no exit, when I started to feel really sleepy. I knew I was riding badly - I suddenly found myself about 5m behind a lorry but I lifted the visor, started singing and generally made the mistake of trying to push on to the next exit (because you're not supposed to stop on the hard shoulder except in an emergency).

Bad move... about 5 minutes later I suddenly found myself riding diagonally across the hard shoulder with the left hand indicator on, heading for a grass embankment. The weird thing was I could remember a little dream of seeing the exit ahead. I stopped, got off the bike, took my helmet off, walked around and jumped up and down a bit and got back on the bike, road to the next exit and had a kip for 30 minutes... after that I was fine, and the parcel made it to its destination, albeit a few minutes late...


Postscript to this story

I posted this story to a motorcycling group elsewhere. To my surprise, few of the replies took the danger of drowsiness whilst riding at face value and considered it as a real (or even potential) problem. Most came up with a "I get tired but I continue to ride/drive whilst singing/looking around/jumping up and down and that works for me" rationale or as one experienced rider claimed, he could tell non-dangerous tiredness from dangerous tiredness.

The interesting thing is that the report highlighted that people do not see driving whilst tired as a high risk activity, and I'm very surprised to see that this group of people, who are otherwise very safety conscious, are actually responding in exactly the way the report predicted. Clearly because they have driven many times whilst tired and have got away with it, they dismiss the dangers as negligible, despite solid evidence to the contrary.

It seems to me that despite the evidence that these folk remedies don't work, this is the same "I can handle it" attitude that drink drivers habitually use to excuse their behaviour... until the day they fail to handle it. I guess we need a lot of educating before we believe the dangers of our behaviour.