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Driving while tired

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Driving through the night is one way to try and avoid heavy traffic when youre going on a long journey. Its the sort of thing that families do when going away on holiday and faced with a nine-hour drive to their destination. Chuck the kids in the back, set off at midnight and aim to arrive early morning with a full day ahead of you lazing on the beach while everyone else sits in traffic jams.

It sounds fine and it works as well, as long as you factor in the tiredness element. Did you realise, for example, that a prolonged spell of driving at night is just as bad as having a couple of drinks from the point of view of affecting how alert you are?

In fact I read last week that just two hours of motorway driving in the dark can affect your performance behind the wheel just as much as if youd had two alcoholic drinks. Apparently one fifth of all traffic accidents are caused by drowsiness behind the wheel and one in three drivers admit to having nodded off while driving at night at some time.

Now, weve all yawned and felt a bit drowsy during a long journey sometimes, but how many of us have actually come close to falling asleep at the wheel? The problem is that drivers are often unaware of sleepiness and reduced awareness. Long motorway driving can be tedious and monotonous, which is why it can be dangerous to drive on these roads for prolonged periods of time. Winding country lanes demand more of your attention so youre less likely to doze off.

And its not just when driving at night that drowsiness becomes a problem either. Weve all driven into work bleary-eyed some mornings but what I didnt know was that, statistically, you are more at risk of having a fatigue-related accident if you drive in the middle of the afternoon or very early in the morning.

A report in the Journal of Sleep Research has highlighted the problems of drivers nodding off behind the wheel and the people who compiled it are actually calling for legislation to limit the amount of time a driver can spend behind the wheel continuously at night to just two hours.

The researchers also rubbish traditional methods of helping to stay alert, such as playing very loud music or driving with the windows open, which are only of limited benefit. The advice is stop every two hours, have a coffee and take a short nap.

And going back to the point about night time driving, in some countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and the USA, newly qualified drivers are banned from the roads at night and there have been calls for similar legislation to be put in place in this country.

The basic facts are that fatigue reduces your reaction times and if you do fall asleep at the wheel, you hardly need me to point out the obvious implications injuring or killing yourself or someone else.

Accidents where the driver has dozed off tend to be more severe as well because, being asleep and unaware of what is happening, the driver doesnt brake or take any avoiding action. He or she just ploughs headlong into whatever happens to be in the way.

So think before setting out on a long journey about having regular stops every two hours along the way, whether it be at night or during the day. And if you feel tired to start with dont set off.