[ASC-media] Media Release - Driver fatigue - an accident waiting to happen

Australian Academy of Science scied at science.org.au
Thu Jan 9 09:24:04 EST 2003

Australian Academy of Science
9 January 2003

Media release - Driver fatigue - an accident waiting to happen

Although we often associate driver fatigue with long-haul truck drivers, it can affect all of us.

Strange things happen in the dead of night. A car leaves a dark and lonely highway, apparently at full speed, and slams into an unforgiving tree. Nobody sees it happen and the driver is dead. On another country road, a car drifts from its lane for no obvious reason and smashes into an oncoming truck, killing all the car's occupants.

More than likely, these crashes were caused by fatigue: drivers either falling asleep at the wheel or so exhausted they made serious - and fatal - driving errors. 

Fatigue is thought to be one of the biggest killers on Australian roads, rivalling the effects of speed and alcohol. But the full extent of its role is not really known - unlike alcohol and drugs, fatigue can't be tested for in post-mortems. This is the reason for the big difference between the lowest and highest estimates of the role of fatigue in the Australian road toll. 

The effects of fatigue on driver performance have been documented in numerous studies in which subjects were required to perform driving tasks after long hours of wakefulness. Fatigue manifests itself in slower reaction times, reduced vigilance and a reduced capacity for information processing.

But probably the greatest hazard posed by fatigue is the risk of sleep itself. A fatigued driver who remains awake will probably be able to take some (perhaps belated) action to avert a crash, but one who has fallen asleep must rely solely on luck for survival. 

It is clear that the best way to manage fatigue is simply to get enough sleep. Medical researchers suggest that 8 hours a night is about the right amount for most people, although some, particularly those with sleep disorders, might find this difficult to achieve. 

More about driver fatigue is on the Australian Academy of Science's Nova: Science in the news website at http://www.science.org.au/nova. The topic also includes a glossary; student activities; further reading in Australasian Science and New Scientist; and annotated links to relevant websites, including the Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales, the National Roads and Motorists' Association of Australia and VicRoads. The topic was developed with support from the NRMA-ACT Road Safety Trust.

The principal sponsor of Nova is Telstra Corporation Ltd. (http://www.telstra.com/learning).

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