Driving while fatigued is more than just feeling a little tired when you’re behind the wheel. Fatigue is a type of impairment that results in reduced mental and/or physical performance. It’s a far-reaching safety risk that needs to be addressed in your road safety plan.
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 – and at greater risk of making costly mistakes.
Fatigue can affect all drivers, but there are several groups that are at greater risk:
- 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 casual or contributing factor in about 20% of crashes. It is a factor in nearly as many crashes as distractions, speed, and drug and alcohol impairment. Not getting enough quality sleep, long periods of being awake and lifestyle choices are the most common causes.
How fatigue impacts drivers
Physical fatigue comes from activities that exhaust your muscles. You may not be able to respond as fast as you usually can when driving. Mental fatigue is even worse because you are less capable of performing key driving tasks.
Reacting a fraction of a second faster or slower can be the difference between a near miss and serious, costly crash.
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
Main causes of fatigue
Not getting enough good quality sleep, being awake for long periods, and working long shifts often generate fatigue. How factors at work and in everyday life can lead to driver fatigue is explained below.
- Most people need 7.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep each night. Getting less contributes to fatigue.
- Losing 1 hour of sleep each night for 5 nights creates a sleep debt of 5 hours. The only way to “pay off” that sleep debt is to get an equal amount of restorative sleep to make up for it.
Your employees can become tired from other activities besides driving. Here are examples of work conditions that contribute to fatigue:
- Driving or concentrating for long hours
- Repetitive, boring or complex tasks
- Warm/over-comfortable vehicle cab
- High noise levels
- Poorly lit environment – limited visibility weather, inadequate headlights
- Vehicle vibration
- Working at night – humans are hard-wired to be awake during the day and asleep at night. Driving at night, during irregular hours, and for long shifts interrupts your natural sleep/awake cycle and can create fatigue
- Driving after staying awake for a long time is like driving after drinking alcohol. They both impair your ability to drive safely.
- Some prescription and over-the-counter medicines contain caffeine or other stimulants that can make it difficult to get the sleep you need. Others can make you feel drowsy. These include heart, blood pressure, and asthma drugs, as well as pain relievers, cold decongestants, antihistamines, and diet pills.
- Sleep apnea, insomnia and other medical conditions can contribute to fatigue.
- Stressful driving situations like heavy traffic, slippery roads, or being unfamiliar with the vehicle or the route can leave drivers feeling stressed, frustrated, and exhausted. Stress from a driver’s personal life can also affect their driving performance.
- Good health and healthy lifestyle choices are a big part of avoiding fatigue.
- Get regular exercise, maintain a healthy diet, drink enough water and have regular check-ups with your doctor.
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
- Sore, heavy, droopy, or blood-shot eyes
- Slower than normal reflexes and reaction times
- Impatience or irritability
- Aching, stiff, or sore muscles, or cramps
- Lack of motivation
- Daydreaming, decreased ability to focus or concentrate
What employers can do
Your employees are a vital asset. Fatigued drivers put themselves, their passengers, other road users, and their employers at risk. You’re legally responsible for the safety of your employees when they are driving or riding in a work vehicle. Your organization can prevent fatigue-related crashes by taking basic safety steps.
Employer legal obligations
As an employer you’re legally responsible for ensuring your employees are safe when they drive for work regardless of how much driving they do and whether they’re using a company-owned or personal vehicle. (Note: their commute between home and work is not considered driving for work.) Review your legal obligations to understand the laws that apply to you. You can also review your responsibilities when employees drive their own vehicle.
Employers, supervisors and employees should be familiar with Occupational Health and Safety Regulation Part 4.19 and 4.20. They explain specific things each party must do to minimize the likelihood that an employee drives if they’re impaired by fatigue or any other means.
Remember that employees have the right to refuse unsafe work. In the case of impairment, workers have a more specific responsibility not do work (or drive) if they are impaired and driving would create an undue risk to anyone.
Steps to reduce fatigue risks
Use this 3-step approach to help manage fatigue risks:
Identify driving activities, situations, or tasks where being fatigued could increase the risk of harm. Talk to drivers about fatigue and its risks. Get them to tell you what causes their fatigue and when and where risks occur.
Assess the level of risk associated with each of the identified hazards, and how those risks increase when workers are fatigued.
Use our Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment Tool Kit to help evaluate the risk level. Rate the risks as high, medium, or low. This helps you decide which risks are most serious so you can deal with them first. Involve drivers in the risk assessment.
Use the Hierarchy of Controls to decide what measures will work best to eliminate or minimize risks. Here are a few ideas on how that could work:
Use journey management to decide what driving is essential. Start by asking whether the trip is necessary. Each time you avoid unnecessary driving, you eliminate the risk of a fatigued driver getting behind the wheel.
If it’s necessary to travel, driving may not always be the safest way to get there. For example, if you’re concerned you’ll become fatigued during a long, monotonous drive, can you fly instead?
There are administrative controls you can use to reduce fatigue risks. For example:
- Schedule trips so that driving is done during daylight hours when the driver is well-rested. Most people are “ready to go” first thing in the morning after they’ve had a good sleep and a good breakfast.
- Weekday crash frequency peaks between 3 and 6 p.m. One reason is the natural mid-afternoon energy slump that often makes people feel tired or exhausted. You can reduce risks if you can schedule driving tasks so that employees are not behind the wheel at that time of the day.
- Build trip plans that include breaks so drivers can get fresh air, stretch their limbs, and drink water about every 2 hours, Remind drivers that it’s better to pull over for a nap than have to be pulled out of the ditch.
- Improve the driving environment. Train drivers to optimize their driving workplace. Help them understand how ergonomics and maximizing visibility can improve alertness and reduce fatigue.
Get drivers’ input in the risk control process. Ask for feedback on the steps you’ve taken to see if they are working.
You can also reduce driving fatigue risks by:
Talking with employees
Communicate openly and regularly with employees who drive. Encourage them to share their concerns and ideas. Get a sense of their fatigue level, how it’s affecting their driving, and what ideas they have to help reduce fatigue.
Supporting employee health and wellness
With a healthy work-life balance, drivers are less likely to be fatigued. Provide tools, guides, and ideas that help staff make healthy diet and fitness choices. Encourage drivers to have regular medical check-ups. Organizations that invest in employee wellness can see a return of more than double their investment.
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. Your employer needs to educate, train, and supervise you in safe driving procedures. You can also take some basic steps to help prevent fatigue.
How to stay awake and alert
Whether you drive for several hours each day or just a few minutes there is plenty you can do to improve your own safety and help make sure you’re not involved in a crash because of fatigue.
- Make sure you get enough sleep – 7 or 8 hours each night.
- Keep your energy levels up – eat good meals and healthy snacks.
- Don’t leave driving until the end of the day when you’re bound to be tired.
- Follow your employer’s instructions for controlling the fatigue risks. And if you know you’re too fatigued to drive safely, you have a responsibility to refuse unsafe work.
Take the following steps to help reduce or prevent fatigue on the road:
Start by asking whether you need to drive. Can you make a video call instead? If you have to get behind the wheel, plan your trip by:
- Checking road conditions (consult DriveBC or your GPS, listen to road reports)
- Allowing more time than you need so you don’t speed
- Scheduling regular breaks (every 2 hours)
- Checking your phone before leaving so aren’t tempted to use it while driving
If you’re on a lengthy drive, stop at a rest stop, park, or somewhere quiet every 2 hours. Get out and stretch your limbs. Have a drink of water. Take a 5 to 10 minute walk.
Healthy food and water can help you stay alert. Avoid sugary or caffeinated beverages and choose high-protein snacks over fatty foods like fries.
A nap is a great way to lower your mental fatigue. Napping during a break or after pulling over can help make up for a lack of sleep. Here are a few tips for an effective nap:
- Schedule it to suit you. What time of day do you find it easiest to nap?
- Keep it to 30 minutes at the most
- Take a few minutes to wake up completely before you carry on driving