How long should you drive before you take a break?

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I read a while ago that tiredness is estimated to be responsible for around 300 deaths on the road a year. It’s not a question of people falling asleep at the wheel, either. Just being tired can cause a momentary error of judgement, resulting in an accident. So what can you do to avoid fatigue at the wheel on a long journey, and how long should you drive before taking a break?

I think she should've taken a break a little earlier

I’ve just come back from a holiday which involved a nine-hour drive down to Cornwall. Now of course I didn’t drive non-stop for nine hours, but that was the total journey time.

I first stopped after a couple of hours for a cup of coffee and a comfort stop. I was in no real hurry but if I had been, I would probably have carried on for  a bit longer. The stop lasted about half an hour and then I pushed on for about another three or four hours before stopping for lunch. That was probably about another half to three quarters of an hour and then I continued the journey and didn’t stop again until we arrived. That meant that out of the nine hours, I had stopped for less than an hour and a half. At some point, I had driven for about four hours without stopping.

The driver's best friend

I felt fine and had no problem concentrating at the wheel.

On the way back it was a different story. At one point, after a few hours of driving, I found myself drifting. I didn’t feel as if I was falling asleep but knew that I was drowsy. I suddenly had one of those moments where you feel as if you’ve woken with a start. I realised that I had dropped off for about half a second. It frightened me and I pulled into a lay-by and walked around.

What I had experienced is called a microsleep, and it can last from anything between two and 30 seconds. I was lucky.

It’s probably no surprise to learn that most accidents caused by people falling asleep at the wheel occur between midnight and 6.00am, but another danger time is between 2.00-4.00pm. In both cases the body experiences a natural ‘circadian dip’ and is likely to be sleepy and sluggish.

People use different ways of trying to stay alert behind the wheel – some open the window or turn the radio up. Others chat to passengers (if there are any). But none of these are of any real use according to the experts.

Sing when you're snoozing!

In fact the advice from those in the know is that we should stop for a 15 minute break every two hours or 100 miles, and if you feel really drowsy, then try to take a 20 minute nap. But of course, once behind the wheel and eating up the miles, there is a great temptation to just carry on – to get to your destination as soon as possible.

But if you’re repeatedly yawning and having difficulty keeping your eyes open, then you are in danger. Other things to look out for are drifting from lane to lane, driving over rumble strips (a good way to wake you up actually) and suddenly realising that you can’t remember the last few miles of your journey.

Sleeping when driving is a dangerous thing to do

If this is the case, stop as soon as you can. Better still, take the advice from the experts and make that regular stop every two hours. Walk around, have a drink, rest for 15 minutes. You don’t want to end up like the subject of that old joke:

“When I die, I want to go peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and shouting in terror, like his passengers.”

Do you have any stories about driving when tired? What are your techniques to stay awake? Why not let us know by commenting below…