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Is driving fatigued just as bad as driving drunk?

While delayed response times, drowsiness, and general grogginess could sound like the end of a night out on the town, it could just as easily describe the symptoms for fatigue. When we aren’t well rested, our bodies and minds must bear the burden, which is similar to driving with alcohol in the blood.

As driving is an activity which requires us being alert and responsive, substances that could impair our judgement such as alcohol are restricted or prohibited, depending on a driver’s age and licence. However, research has come to suggest that a lack of sleep could have just as dramatic an effect on our ability to control a vehicle as alcohol.

Sleep v blood alcohol content

In a study published in the journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine, researchers examined the effect of sleep deprivation against a maximum blood alcohol level. The participants were tested throughout the study over a battery of simple tests involving basic cognition and response times as well as memory and attention.

The findings showed that after 17-19 hours without sleep, participants performed at the same level, if not worse, than those with a 0.05 per cent blood alcohol content (BAC). In fact, for the response time test, those who hadn’t slept had up to 50 per cent slower response speeds than the group with 0.05 per cent BAC.

Once participants surpassed this period of sleep deprivation, their test results were on par with those who had a BAC of 0.1 per cent.

“These findings reinforce the evidence that the fatigue of sleep deprivation is an important factor likely to compromise performance of speed and accuracy of the kind needed for safety on the road and in other industrial settings,” stated the report.

Fatigue can be deadly

In New South Wales, all learner drivers, including P-platers, have a zero BAC limit when driving.

Most drivers will fall under the category of a 0.05 per cent BAC limit, meaning that a driver who hasn’t slept for about 17 hours could theoretically have the handling capabilities of someone driving over the BAC limit.

While the dangers of extreme fatigue are often preached in relation to occupational drivers such as truck drivers, all Australians need to be aware of the risk that sleep deprivation can present. In NSW, fatigue is one of the state’s three main causes of road fatalities, fatigue-related collisions taking the lives of more people than crashes involving a drunk driver according to Transport for NSW.

Addressing fatigue

Education remains an ongoing goal for many transport agencies. Transport for NSW is hoping to reduce the amount of fatigue-related crashes with their ‘Test your tired self’ campaign, involving an interactive test to help drivers ascertain whether or not they are fit to drive.

The issue surrounding fatigued driving raises an interesting question over the role that automated safety features could play in preventing such crashes.

A forward collision warning could be key in alerting a tired driver whose attention has wandered that they are about to hit a vehicle or other road hazard, while a lane departure warning system can notify a driver if it detects any potential drifting.

If a driver isn’t able to predict and react to an oncoming hazard in time, automated emergency braking can either assist in braking or execute braking independently.

Fatigue related crashes have a major impact on the cost of the CTP insurance scheme in NSW.

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