Driver fatigue – what is it and how do you avoid it?

Fatigue is one of the major causes of road crashes making driving while sleepy as dangerous as speeding, or driving under the influence of alcohol.  People often think that driver fatigue means falling asleep at the wheel but that’s not all it is – feeling tired, weary or exhausted is enough to seriously impair your driving long before you reach the extreme form of fatigue and ‘nod off’ at the wheel.

What’s the big deal?

When you’re tired, your brain cells don’t communicate effectively.  This causess problems with visual perception, physical reflexes and memory.  Relating those things to driving, fatigue can cause a number of problems including:

    • reducing your attentiveness and makes you less alert to dangers

    • slowing your reaction time, reflexes and ability to make decisions

    • drifting out of your lane and following too closely behind other drivers

    • speeding up and slowing down without really noticing

    • decreasing your tolerance for other road users.

Being tired can also cause you to drift in and out of sleep without knowing it. Sleep experts call this microsleep. If this happens while driving, it can cost you your life.  These naps can last between three and five seconds and are the main cause of fatigue-related crashes where the driver runs off the road.  Crashes that occur because the driver has fallen asleep are often very severe because the driver is unable to do anything to avoid or prevent the crash.

Here are some signs to look for:

driver fatigue

How can you reduce the risk of fatigue related crashes?

    • it all starts with a good night sleep – consider what lifestyle changes you can make to help you get the sleep you need

    • avoid long drives after school or work

    • plan your trip, including where you can take a safe break from driving

    • share the driving (if possible)

    • stop in a safe place when you feel tired

    • avoid driving at night when your body naturally wants to sleep

    • try and have a power nap to revive – no more than 20 minutes. Much more than this and you might wake up feeling groggy (check out our tips on how to take a power nap – power naps are also super handy to get your brain functioning for a study session)


Don’t be tempted to keep driving when you are close to your destination. Many tiredness-related collisions occur close to home because the driver has relaxed, and the body takes this as a signal that it is ok to fall asleep.

Many of the things people do to stop themselves falling asleep at the wheel are only effective for a very limited time. The following do not work and will refresh you only for a short while:

    • Drinking caffeine or sugar

    • Getting out of your vehicle to stretch your legs

    • Opening the window

    • Turning up the radio volume

Once fatigue has set in, no amount of willpower will keep you awake. The only answer is sleep and you should stop for a short nap or seek assistance to get home.