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Driver fatigue – a hidden killer?

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What is driver fatigue?

Driver fatigue is a killer. The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) defines fatigue as "tiredness, weariness, jetlag or exhaustion brought about by inadequate sleep over a period of time." The NZTA says that if you drive when fatigued you increase your chances of having a crash. That's because fatigue slows your reflexes and affects your ability to concentrate and make good decisions. Fatigue crashes are usually severe, resulting in serious injury and death. This is because they tend to be high speed impacts due to the fact a driver who has fallen asleep cannot brake or swerve to avoid or prevent the crash.

According to the NZTA, if you drive after less than 6 hours sleep, your risk of a crash triples. In 2011 fatigue crashes resulted in 32 deaths and 141 serious injuries. The NZTA also comments that research has shown a person who has had no sleep for 24 hours will have a driving impairment equivalent to that of a person with a 0.05 percent blood alcohol concentration. The maximum permitted blood alcohol concentration level for driving in New Zealand for someone over 20 years old is 0.08 and for a person under 20 years of age, 0.03.

Fatigue in the workplace

Driver fatigue is a workplace issue says the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC). If you drive as part of your job, you and your employer share responsibility to keep you safe on the road. This includes managing the risk of driver fatigue. Management and individuals need to work together to reduce the risk and impact of fatigue. The only cure for fatigue is sleep, but it's best not to get fatigued in the first place. The ACC offers a useful checklist that helps you calculate your "Driver Fatigue Rating."

The difficulty with driving under the influence of fatigue is that it's natural, unlike drinking alcohol or taking drugs where you've ingested chemicals. It's more difficult to monitor than an overt act like, for instance, speeding.

There's also no social stigma because fatigue can affect anybody indiscriminately. A lot of people who drive while overly tired think they're 'doing the right thing' because it's related to their job. Unfortunately they greatly increase the risk of road trauma for themselves and other people.

Safer Journeys

The NZ government's strategy to guide improvements in road safety over the period 2010 to 2020 is outlined on the Safer Journeys website. The strategy's vision is "A safe road system increasingly free of death and serious injury".

One of the goals of Safer Journeys is to ensure that by 2020 New Zealanders' management of driver fatigue and distraction will be a habitual part of what it is to be a safe and competent driver. Safer Journeys has so far launched two action plans (2011-2012 and 2013-2015) which are a comprehensive look at how to improve safety on our roads.

What can individuals do?

All of this will help but, ultimately, road users must act responsibly. Watch out for:

  • Loss of concentration, yawning and drowsiness
  • Drifting out of your lane and unintentionally changing speed

When you spot these signs take a break or, where possible, swap drivers. Research shows that staying on the road when you're tired is a life and death situation. Don't become a statistic.

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