Fight the silent killer on our roads: Driver fatigue

Alcohol, speed, and fatigue are three of the major killers on roads around the world. Driver fatigue is often described as the ‘silent killer’ because tiredness creeps up quietly and motorists try to fight it by rolling down the window or playing music loudly – sometimes with disastrous consequences.

A 2022 study published in the Nature and Science of Sleep found that a motorist with less than five hours of sleep is just as likely to have a vehicle accident as if they were over the legal limit for alcohol. “To compound the matter, in a collision, we can easily test for alcohol consumption, but we can’t yet test for fatigue,” points out Barend Smit, Marketing Director of MotorHappy, a supplier of motor management solutions.

“However, this may soon change. Researchers at Monash University in Australia have developed a new blood test that can detect sleepiness in drivers. The test could pave the way for drivers, and their employers if a cash was a result of insufficient sleep.”

One of the key problems is that many drivers are unable to recognise when they are drowsy. The onset of fatigue is slow but potentially life-threatening. Fatigue causes a motorist to blink their eyes for longer than normal. A quick blink usually takes 300 to 400 milliseconds, but once fatigue sets in the ‘blink’ becomes longer and could become a ‘micro sleep’. Imagine this happening as a motorist is travelling 120km on a highway – that’s if they’re sticking to the speed limit!

Other signs of driver fatigue are decreased alertness, slow reactions, lane swerving, shallow breathing and burning eyes.

The automotive industry is working on a technology called ‘Driver Monitoring’ that will hopefully one day be available in all new cars. This system monitors the motorist and gives warnings when it detects driver fatigue. Mercedes-Bez calls their system ‘Attention Assist’, Land Rover calls it ‘Driver Condition Monitor’ and Volvo calls theirs ‘Driver Alert’.

How to stay alert while driving

“Many drivers try to ‘push through it’ when they detect signs of drowsiness. Opening a window or playing your music loudly will not keep you awake. It is safest to stop your vehicle in a safe place, and get some rest,” advises Smit. “Do not continue driving if you are feeling drowsy. It’s not worth the risk to you or other road users.”

Additional tips to help you stay alert while driving:

  • If it’s a long drive, schedule your trip during waking hours.
  • If possible, travel with a partner so you can take turns driving.
  • Sit up straight in your seat, don’t slump.
  • If possible, keep the interior of the vehicle cool.
  • Stop regularly to rest, stretch your body, move around a little, and get fresh air.
  • Drink a caffeinated beverage.
  • Move your eyes as you drive. Don’t focus on only one point in front of you.

With road fatalities and accidents at an unacceptably high level in South Africa, it’s important to ensure you are covered with roadside assistance, and that you can get the help you need in the event of an emergency. All MotorHappy products come with free roadside assistance, which includes vehicle towing, fuel run, jump start, locksmith services, etc.