News & Blog

The Quiet Killer: Fatigue

Jan 5, 2021

On the blog: our guest blogger, Karen McDonnell from RoSPA talks about how tiredness kills. 

Experiencing fatigue at work, home or the road can massively increase your chances of being in a fatal or serious accident. With the darker nights and colder weather upon us, you are more likely to feel tired when going about your daily routine.

Fatigue and road accidents

Falling asleep at the wheel is a more prevalent occurrence than most people realise. In 2018, a survey of 20,000 motorists found one in eight admitted falling asleep while driving, while 37 per cent said they had been so tired they were frightened they would drop off behind the wheel. Contrary to popular belief, common remedies for tiredness while driving such as winding the window down or turning the radio up will not improve alertness. If you feel the need to employ these tactics you are probably already too tired to drive safely.

Driver fatigue causes thousands of road accidents each year; research shows that it may be a contributory factor in up to 20 per cent of road accidents and up to one quarter of fatal and serious accidents.

Sleepiness increases reaction time (a critical element of safe driving). It also reduces vigilance, alertness and concentration so that the ability to perform attention-based activities like driving is impaired. The speed at which information is processed is also reduced by sleepiness. The quality of decision-making may also be affected.

Road accidents are more likely to occur between midnight and 6am, between 2-4pm (especially after a large meal or even just one alcoholic beverage), while driving home after working long hours, and particularly post night-shift.

You can minimise your chances of being in a road accident by making sure you are fit to drive before setting off, getting a good night’s sleep and taking regular breaks. If you do need to stop on your journey, RoSPA recommends that you drink two cups of coffee and take a 15-minute nap.

Fatigue and the workplace

For those who drive for a living, preventing fatigue from setting in could be the difference between life and death, not just for themselves but others too.

In August 2019, a national newspaper reported that one in in five (21 per cent) of bus drivers in London had to “fight sleepiness” at least two or three times a week. This was revealed in a study by researchers at Loughborough University who surveyed 1,353 of London’s 25,000 bus drivers for Transport for London. The study also revealed that 35 per cent of the respondents had a “close” call on the roads due to tiredness in the past year, and 5 per cent had been in at least one accident because of fatigue.

RoSPA views fatigue as a “whole-person, whole-life” topic, with excessive hours damaging health and relationships at work and at home.

Diana Holland of Unite has echoed this perspective, saying: “The safety of the general public and drivers is being put at risk because workers are too tired to do their jobs safely. This is putting workers at risk, family life and relationships at risk, it undermines professionalism, work-life balance, and threatens community safety.”

The blurring of work and home during COVID-19 and the tiredness that this has brought for many has also had an impact on health and wellbeing, although we have also heard positive stories from some workers who are spending significantly less time commuting.

The management of occupational road risk has been a key campaigning theme for RoSPA since 1996. Companies need to manage driving risk as they would any other risk to their organisation, and where people drive for work control measures must include those that reduce the risk of fatigue.

For more information visit RoSPA or The Scottish Occupational Road Safety Alliance