Tool Kit

Driver Fatigue

Fatigue is a type of impairment that reduces a driver’s ability to notice, process, and correctly respond to driving-related hazards. That’s why it’s a contributing factor in so many crashes. Use our resources for employers and drivers to help assess and reduce fatigue risks.

Who’s at risk?

Everyone feels fatigued at some point and driving can make things worse. A warm vehicle and the soothing motion of the drive can make you drowsy and increase your crash risks.

Some drivers are behind the wheel for long periods of time and can become bored and inattentive. Others who drive for even short periods of time in high-stress situations can find themselves exhausted. In all cases, they’re at greater risk of making costly mistakes.

Fatigue can affect all drivers, but several groups are at greater risk. They include:

  • Workers on night or rotating shifts
  • Long-haul commercial vehicle drivers
  • People taking prescribed and over-the-counter medications
  • Young males (especially under age 26)
  • People with sleep disorders
  • People under the influence of alcohol or marijuana

Impacts, causes, and warning signs

When an employee is physically or mentally fatigued (or both), it affects their ability to safely perform their driving duties. Studies show fatigue is a factor in about 20% of crashes.

How fatigue impacts drivers

Physical fatigue is the result of activities that exhaust muscles. It may leave a driver unable to respond as quickly or effectively as they normally would. For example, a strenuous day of physical work may slow a driver’s reflexes and increase their reaction time. Mental fatigue is a more frequent concern. It often causes reduced alertness, lower attentiveness, less focus, and poor decision making. It impairs a driver’s ability to perform essential driving tasks.

Fatigue tends to hit in waves. At first, drivers may not be as alert and vigilant as usual. Then emotional capabilities are affected, leaving drivers anxious, short-tempered, or more impulsive. Then mental abilities suffer, making it hard to concentrate, remember things, or make sound decisions.

Drivers who are mentally and/or physically fatigued are:

  • More likely to take risks
  • More likely to forget or ignore normal checks or procedures
  • Less able to absorb critical driving information and respond to it
  • Less able to solve problems
  • Less able to decide on the best actions to take to address a hazard, and execute the necessary responses
  • Less able to judge distance, speed, and time

At any stage, fatigue can be the difference between avoiding an incident and being involved in a serious, costly crash.

Main causes of fatigue

Inadequate sleep is one of the leading causes of fatigue. It can impair the brain as much as drinking alcohol does. Research suggests being awake for 17 to 19 hours straight makes people drive like they have a blood alcohol level of .05. Most people need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Getting less can create a sleep debt.

Losing one hour of sleep each night for 5 nights creates a sleep debt of 5 hours. The only way to “pay off” a sleep debt is to get an equal amount of restorative sleep to make up for it.

Review the following factors at work and in everyday life that can lead to driver fatigue.

Work tasks, environment, and schedule
Medications and medical conditions
Lifestyle choices

Warning signs of fatigue

Fatigue has many common symptoms, but it can be difficult for drivers to notice them. Watch out for:

  • Feeling sleepy, drowsy, or exhausted
  • Yawning
  • Sore, heavy, droopy, or blood-shot eyes
  • Slower than normal reflexes and reaction times
  • Impatience or irritability
  • Aching, stiff, or sore muscles
  • Muscle cramps
  • Lack of motivation
  • Indecisiveness
  • Daydreaming, decreased ability to focus or concentrate

What employers can do

Fatigued drivers put themselves, their passengers, other road users, and their employers at risk. Your organization can take steps to prevent fatigue-related crashes as part of your road safety planning.

Understand your legal responsibilities

As an employer you’re legally responsible for the safety of your employees whenever they drive for work or ride in a vehicle that’s being used for work. This applies regardless of how much driving they do and whether they’re using a company-owned or personal vehicle.

Review your legal obligations including when employees drive their own vehicle.

Employers, supervisors and employees should be familiar with Occupational Health and Safety Regulation Sections 4.19 and 4.20. The regulations explain specific requirements and things employers, supervisors, and employees must do to make sure no employee drives a work vehicle when impaired by fatigue or any other reason.

Have a strategy for reducing fatigue risks

Driving is a complex task. Adding any amount of fatigue increases the likelihood it will contribute to costly driving mistakes. Using a standard risk assessment approach will help you see which driving situations are the highest priority for action, and which ones offer the greatest opportunities for measures to reduce risks.

Step 1. Identify risks of driver fatigue

Make a list of the tasks your employees do that involve driving. Be specific because your next step is to rank those driving tasks in terms of how risks increase if the driver is fatigued.

Use the following examples from industry sectors, and our Inventory of Driving-Related Hazards (Excel 14KB) for ideas on what to add to your list.

Example: Municipal government
Example: Delivery service

Step 2. Assess risk level

Use basic risk assessment principles to identify the driving situations in which fatigue is most likely to generate the most injuries, losses, or other harm.

Review our Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment Tool Kit to learn more about risk assessment principles and how to apply them.

If your organization doesn’t have a tool for assessing risks, use our simple matrix. The following scenario demonstrates how you can apply it.

Scenario: Assessing different types of driving

Step 3. Eliminate fatigue risks whenever possible

The highest risk rankings from Step 2 identify your priorities for action. The next step is to find measures or controls that will eliminate or minimize fatigue risks. Use the Hierarchy of Controls to decide what measures will work best. Here are a few ideas, based on the scenario in Step 2.

Decide if driving is necessary
Consider alternatives to driving

Step 4: Minimize fatigue risks by changing how work gets done

Many of the measures available to reduce fatigue risks are administrative controls that reduce risks by improving how driving work is done. Here are some steps you may be able to take in your workplace.

Adjust and optimize driving schedules
Develop fatigue policy and procedures
Provide training and education
Take advantage of technology
Include fatigue in crash investigations
Support employee health and wellness
Foster a positive safety culture
Review the North American Fatigue Management Program

What drivers can do

No matter how much or how little you drive for work, fatigue can put you at risk. It can affect all drivers regardless of age, skill level, or experience.

Know and follow your employer’s safe driving procedures. Always arrive at work fit for duty so you can safely perform your work tasks. If you feel too fatigued to drive safely, report it to your supervisor immediately.

Take these important steps to help prevent fatigue.

Make sleep a priority
Manage your driving
Optimize your workplace on wheels
Make healthy choices



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