Asleep at the wheel? Driver fatigue and the science of sleep




The world demands more and more of us every day, but we can’t deny our need to sleep. Getting behind the wheel is already arduous without having to battle fatigue. Here’s how you can.

By Scott Murray, Journalist, Australasian Fleet Management Association (AFMA)


Live in Australia? Chances are you’ve heard the thunderous nightly scurry of possums using your roof as a racetrack. They screech, claw, jump and bicker over territory and food, and because Jack wants the most available Jill. A nocturnal society designed over thousands of years to function best when the sun is set, and they do so with intensity, precision and dexterity. Every bloody night.

Humans do not. We are very different from possums, obviously. We don’t function at night like they’re biologically programmed to, and yet we push the boundaries every time we jump behind the wheel after a day of performing at our best.

You’ve heard the road safety campaigns telling you to ‘Revive and survive’, or how, ‘You can’t fight sleep’. Some can probably recall TAC’s 1994 ad where a young couple sets off for a weekend in the country on a Friday night, after a week of work. The young male, having driven all night, eyes hanging out of their sockets, sails their Kombi van into the side of a tip-truck. It’s a gory string of images which shocked viewers then, and still makes you flinch today. But yet, in our tech-riddled world of reminders, alarms and never-ending schedules, remembering to take a break seems at the bottom of our to do list.

Prof. David Hillman, chairman of the Seatbelt Foundation and an expert on the science of sleep, says fatigue is getting the better of us, which is quite normal. What isn’t, in his opinion, is our understanding of it and our demonstrated behaviour while fatigued. He begins with the basics.

“Fatigue is an interesting word. It has a couple of meanings and it’s different from getting tired from digging in the garden or lifting heavy boxes, cured by taking a rest. Mental fatigue is from inadequate quality sleep,” he said. “One meaning is often confused with the other and just taking a break isn’t always what’s needed. Having a ‘powernap’ is one way of coping with it.”

Looking closely at the dynamics of sleep, David says, is a good way to understand how you can manage the dangers of fatigue.

“If you have a powernap of 10-15 minutes, you rest, but don’t get into what’s called ‘slow wave sleep’. This is what gives you ‘sleep inertia’, that unwell feeling you get after sleeping a little longer and the effect is worse than before you dozed off. You need a bit of recovery, but if you continue driving with sleep inertia it can be a bad idea.”

But David emphasises we shouldn’t be getting to the point of needing a powernap. It’s easy to forget in today’s society we have basic physiological needs like food, water and sleep.

“Most of us are, or should be, in the usual 7-8 hour band of sleep. But many of us are now trying to push that or are under pressure to get less sleep in order to get more done, sometimes only managing up to six hours of sleep, if that, on a regular basis and it affects us. That’s not right, and if you don’t have adequate sleep there are consequences. Your vigilance is impaired, reaction time is increased, your ability to process diminishes, you become irritable and easily lose focus.”

“Time spent in bed resting is time well spent,” he said. “One of the problems is that you can have a boss who is a notoriously short sleeper and influences their team by spreading the attitude that because they don’t need sleep, their people don’t and that’s wrong. We need to recognise how important sleep is. Something like 30-40% of adults say they don’t get enough sleep on a regular nightly basis and I believe the huge information overload has come from social media. We never switch off, but we need to and we need to have sympathy for others’ basic human needs for sleep.”

One of the people helping mitigate the issue of driver fatigue in fleet management is Robert Wilson from 4C Management Solutions. He’s a kind of GP for operating a business’ fleet, an expert at spotting leaks in the hull and offering tools and strategies for solving problems.

“Fatigue is an impairment that is manifested by on-going factors, it’s not something transient,” he explains. “Fatigue has an important relationship to fleet management. It’s not always about driving either, it relates to plant and equipment operation and other functions in the increasingly motorised workplace.”

Rob, giving numerous examples of how fatigue can seep into the work environment undetected is quite confronting, some cases easily mistaken for shallow assumptions.

“That impairment has potential to impact through injury or via productivity and quality of outcomes. Supervisors, managers and heads of department need to have an awareness of this notion of fatigue. You might say to your colleagues, ‘Look at this slacker, dragging his heels, not performing where I expect them to.’ This could be a telltale sign the issue is present.”

According to his experience, Rob sees this becoming more widely recognised in the workforce. Some specialist organisations look at this sort of detail, providing information sessions, offering educational material to help people understand what fatigue is, what it looks like and how the business is tracking, and then provide solutions.

“Working in hot environments, cold conditions or heavy lifting jobs exacerbate fatigue, likewise in workplaces with excessive vibration or noise which can cause irritation,” he points out. “Sometimes even monotony has a tendency to increase fatigue. So there’s the work itself, the scheduling of work rosters – they say don’t drive when you should be asleep for a reason – because operating outside of your circadian rhythm disrupts sleep patterns and increases risk. Night shifts have to be planned carefully to manage this, likewise the number of hours worked.” Circadian rhythm is often referred to as the ‘body clock’, the physiological pattern that tells your body when to sleep and be awake.

Where 4C sees fatigue more prevalent is in organisations with distributed operations like remote, rural worksites where employees travel to the worksite, do a day’s work and travel home again. “That’s a classic example we see,” Rob said, “and where possible we encourage methods to avoid having to put undue pressure on the driver. So we ask, ‘Can the shift finish earlier or is vehicle pooling an option?’ It’s about mobility and if someone has to drive, absolutely must do that work, we ask if they can stay a night somewhere and continue tomorrow.”

But take other examples where getting your hands dirty isn’t the main course. It’s just as easy, he says, for white collar workers to find themselves dicing with fatigue without even knowing it, in particular salespeople or frequent flyers.

“You fly out first thing in the morning, run around a strange city going from appointment to appointment, barely stopping to eat, hire a car, take calls and then fly home that night. There’s potential for fatigue to catch up with you in that last leg home,” he warns of scenarios affecting various industries and sectors.

“I’ve delivered two-hour training sessions just so staff and management are aware. I would say to fleet managers, make sure everybody is aware of the signs and consequences; develop policies and procedures to address fatigue, train staff accordingly and continually review the effectiveness of your approach,” he advises. There are now smartphone apps that can help workers and management assess their workplace which Rob suggests any employer has a look at.

Another woman fighting fatigue is Ann Williamson, a shining light in fatigue research and how to combat it. As director of the Transport and Road Safety (TARS) Research Centre at University of NSW, Ann has spent more time looking at why we do the things we do on the roads than most of us could possibly conceive.

“Ultimately, we don’t want people to be tired while they’re driving,” she states clearly. “We’ve predominantly focused on the professional drivers who suffer from fatigue the most, from long-distance to short-course driving because it affects such a broad range of people.”

In order for Ann to get into the heads of fatigued drivers, whether it is the general public or fleet operators, her mission heavily involves studying and asking why we do it.

“In order to address it, we look at why people get tired. Working in OH&S in the past, driver fatigue was a major issue, and it’s an issue for anybody whose workforce drives. Most people do understand when they are fatigue and why, but we’ve done a lot of work understanding how it’s caused.

“We look at three things: 1. How long since you slept; 2. the quality of your sleep; and 3. the length of your sleep. Sleep researchers talk about the wakefulness zone, where it’s almost impossible for someone to try to get sleep. This is in the mid-hours of the morning, around dawn, and I stress there is absolutely no reason any shift should be finishing at 5, 6, 7, or 8am, outside your circadian rhythm.”

But Ann emphasises her research is not interested in sleep itself, it is purely about the why, how and solutions for battling fatigue, however she does acknowledge the two overlap.

“Within 10 or 15 minutes of driving, your attention can begin to wane. A massive problem with this issue is there are simply not enough places to take a break. But it’s often not even about sleep at all. Monotonous driving can also produce decreases in alertness, with the same effect as if you were drowsy.”

Ann’s research of late has involved using driving simulators and sleep-deprived test subjects to assess whether they can tell if they themselves are too tired to drive.

“We got them to do a two-hour monotonous drive on a country road and make judgements of how they felt every 200 seconds, on a scale of 1 to 9. People don’t just slip into sleep, there are signals and we need to react early to avoid it. Eating something, having a drink, winding down the windows or putting music on are not substantial enough. We’re trying to get people to pull over, stop, get out of the seat and move around, and rest, have a sleep.”

Increasing frustration on the issue of managing fatigue on our roads is being directed at our message-makers who put infinite resources into speeding and drink/drug driving campaigns. Fatigue may not have the same hard-hitting impact, but Ann says it’s a bigger problem than is being made aware of.

“We need to be treating fatigue with the same stress as drinking, texting or speeding while driving. I think we have far too many fatigue-related crashes and they go unaddressed because we don’t challenge the way things are done and I think the demands on drivers are too great,” she adds.

“I’m not a road authority, but it feels like research isn’t being listened to. We have new evidence now that shows the same old methods aren’t working very well. People need to know how to avoid getting into that situation of being fatigued. Start these conversations with your workforce. It needs to be made okay to respond to early signs of fatigue. The message needs to be about doing something sooner, not going longer and increasing the risk. Fleet managers need to be doing everything they can operationally to stop fatigue before it happens.” It seems the best way to fight fatigue, is to not fight it at all.

For these three passionate individuals, fatigue is silent danger – a workplace risk that affects more than just the driver and happens on a regular basis without the drama of other road safety propaganda. Hearing their messages might just help you, employers and employees, bring to the fore this unglorified safety risk and encourage better practices. Those racing possums, Jack and Jill, making a racket while you’re trying to nod off could even be causing your fatigue. At least they know when it’s time to pull over. Jack fell down and broke his crown in a nursery rhyme, let’s keep it that way.

For strategies on managing fatigue in your workplace visit or

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