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Can you fall asleep on two wheels? The answer is yes
This article was first written in the early 2000s, and was prompted by research by Professor Jim Horne of Loughborough University's Sleep Research Centre. His findings indicated that more people are killed on UK roads due to sleepiness than through drinking and driving. Whilst we generally think of monotonous roads such as motorways are as the problem areas, because of the high speeds and serious consequences are often serious, we can fall asleep anywhere. 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 or ride. And as a group, motorcyclists seem to be blissfully unaware of the problems.
So why do we have problems staying awake? The obvious one is spending too long on the road at any one time. I discovered it was a particular issue in New Zealand, because towns are far apart and the roads are slow, but clearly if we're riding from London to Edinburgh, that's a long way and if we attempt it in one hit, we will get physically tired and sleepy.
Less obvious are the body's natural biorhythms. We are 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.
So first and foremost, we should try to avoid the risk of getting sleepy in the first place. And that means planning a journey to avoid excessive daily mileages. We should also factor in breaks. At least fifteen minutes in every two hours is recommended, but regular longer breaks are a good idea, with a nap as needed when we start to feel sleepy. And avoid heavy meals during breaks and strong coffee or 'energy' drinks. The former divert blood to the digestive system away from the brain, and the latter only provide a very limited, short term lift.
So how do we know we're at risk? We get some early warning. Simulator research shows a driver will often start to feel sleepy around forty minutes before the real problems occur, but typically we try to ride through this stage rather than pull over and take a break, frequently because we're close to the end of our journey. At the same time, we don't realise how badly we are riding, even though others often notice. Witnesses to accidents involving a dozing driver often report that the vehicle was being driven erratically before the accident occurred.
As soon as we realise we're getting tired, we should 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. Common 'cures' such as opening the windows / flipping up the visor, singing to ourselves or turning the stereo up loud don't seem to work.
The next stage is something called 'micro-sleep', where we doze off for a second or two. Ever had that really disconcerting 'long blink' when you suddenly discover the truck ahead is no long three or four seconds away but right in front of the wheel? That's a micro-sleep.
If we start to be concerned about keeping our eyes open, then stop IMMEDIATELY, even on the motorway. The hard shoulder is for emergency use and in my opinion this is an emergency. Although the police might not interpret it that way, if you get off the bike and kick the tyres or something, even a five minute stop should wake you up enough to get safely to the next exit, where you can leave and take a proper break.
It's likely that tiredness-related problems are at the root of some seemingly-inexplicable group riding crashes. I know that I had a crash on one of my rides that was fatigue-related. The rider had started early because he'd had a long way to ride. I had tried to cover too many miles on the road and hadn't factored in sufficient breaks. With around forty minutes to the end of the ride, he lost concentration on a bend and went off the road. He was unhurt but the bike was a write-off. So if you're organising a ride, watch for signs. And if you're in a group ride and YOU start to feel sleepy, stop the entire group rather than try to push on to avoid inconveniencing everyone else.
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 3pm. 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, and then I experienced a micro-sleep. I suddenly found myself about five metres behind a truck.
But I carried on. I lifted the visor, started trying to sing myself away, and made the mistake of trying to push on to the next exit because of that rule about not stopping on the hard shoulder.
Bad move... five minutes later I found myself riding diagonally across the hard shoulder, heading for a grass embankment and with the left hand indicator on.
The weird thing was I could remember a little dream of seeing the exit ahead. This time I stopped, got off the bike and took my helmet off, walked around and jumped up and down for a few minutes before getting back on the bike and pulling off at the next exit. I found a stretch of grass beside the road, and had a kip for half an hour. That way, both rider and parcel made it to their destination, just a few minutes late.
I posted this story to a motorcycling group elsewhere. To my surprise, few people took the danger of drowsiness whilst riding at face value and hardly anyone considered it as a real (or even potential) problem.
A scary number 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. One very experienced rider claimed, he could tell non-dangerous tiredness from dangerous tiredness. Yeah, right.
The interesting thing is that the report highlighted that people do not see driving whilst tired as a high risk activity, and here was a group of experienced riders responding in exactly the way the report predicted.
My guess is that what's happened is that they have driven or ridden many times whilst tired and got away with it. So they dismiss the dangers as negligible, despite solid evidence to the contrary. It's the same "I can handle it" attitude that drink drivers habitually use to excuse their behaviour, right up to the day they fail to handle it. I guess we need a lot of educating before we believe the dangers of our behaviour.
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