Tired at the Wheel: Exposing the Most Common Driving Fatigue Myths & How to Minimise Your Risks

It is common knowledge that drunk, drugged, or distracted drivers pose a danger to themselves and others on the road. But tired motorists, who tend to be overlooked when thinking about unsafe driving, are just as perilous. Indeed, collisions caused by drowsy drivers are 50% more likely to result in death or serious injuries. This is because, if dozing, the person at the wheel doesn’t have the chance to slam the brake or try to avoid the impact. 

Statistics show that fatigue is a major cause of road incidents all over the country. 10 to 20% of all car crashes in the UK, for instance, are said to be caused by driver fatigue. What’s more, in Scotland only, drowsy driving is responsible for about 50 fatal or severe collisions every year

Signs of tiredness can appear when you least expect them to, and for a number of different reasons. To combat the feeling of drowsiness when at the wheel, drivers often rely on well-known tricks and strategies. However, the reality is that most of these unfounded precautions can do very little to cure your sense of sleepiness. 

Therefore, we explore and disprove some of the most frequent myths around driving when tired while offering advice on how to minimise your risks.

Debunking the myths

Most drivers are fully aware of the dangers of drink or drug driving. However, it is fair to say that motorists sometimes don’t apply the same level of caution to drowsy driving, and are more prone to hopping into their car despite feeling tired. 

One of the reasons for this is that some people tend to buy into false ideas about driving fatigue. They are confident that they will be able to keep their tiredness levels under control and stay safe on the road. But with scarce or no scientific evidence to back up these ideas, they remain nothing but dangerous myths. Here, we debunk some of the most common:

  • Drinking coffee keeps you awake – Caffeine can help prevent deep sleep, but it cannot promise to keep your eyes open at all times. In truth, sipping coffee when sleep deprived can favour ‘microsleeps’, where you nod off for a few seconds at a time. This can be extremely dangerous, as in six seconds and at a speed of 70mph, a vehicle can travel about 200m – which is enough time to accidentally veer into a different lane and cause a serious accident.
  • Playing the radio or winding down the windows – Some may believe that turning up the volume of the radio or letting in some fresh air will help them stay awake and concentrated on the road ahead. But if you are already sleepy and struggling to stay alert, external sounds and music may only work temporarily. In fact, they may soon prove to be distracting, adding further strain to your fatigued brain.
  • Young age – Teenage drivers and young motorists may neglect feelings of drowsiness as they think that age is on their side. The truth is, though, that young adults require more or just as much sleep as wiser people. Not to mention that their busy school, university, or job schedules can have a toll on their energy levels. Young age has an array of benefits, but it won’t keep you awake if you are tired behind the wheel.     
  • Sleepiness is dangerous, tiredness isn’t – This is another big misconception. Whether you are sleepy or simply tired, hitting the road is dangerous in both scenarios. To some extent, it is similar to drink driving – you do not have to be completely intoxicated for it to be a hazard. Low-level fatigue can still have a negative impact on your driving, as it impairs the ability to see clearly, spot dangers, make sensible decisions, and manage multiple tasks at once.
  • You are able to predict when you are about to fall asleep – Nobody knows your body better than you do. But when it comes to sleeping, you have limited control over when you may end up dozing off. Indeed, have you ever been aware of the exact moment you have fallen asleep? If you are starting to feel tired, the best option is to pull over at the first safe opportunity and take a nap to recharge.    

Tips to tackle drowsy driving

Driving fatigue can lead to unfortunate and unwanted outcomes, from a painful whiplash injury to more severe or fatal consequences. Jumping behind the wheel when tired is not necessarily illegal, but if it leads to serious collisions, you could be fined or charged for dangerous driving. Therefore, it is vital to spot signs of tiredness and promptly take action for the safety of all road users. 

“Driving is part of our daily lives, allowing us to get from A to B in a timely fashion,” says John Dillon, Head of Dispute Resolution at Watermans. “But, as most things, it comes with its dangers, and tiredness is one of them. This is why you should look out for warning signs when – or before – you hop into your vehicle.

“If you are finding it difficult to concentrate and you are frequently yawning, it may be wise to give driving a miss for a little while. Likewise, heavy eyelids, a nodding head, and rolling eyes should certainly set off alarm bells in your head.

“There are many reasons for which you may suddenly feel sleepy, from sentiments of stress to driving for long periods of time. Whatever the motive, stay away from the roads to keep everyone safe, as the consequences of drowsy driving could be life-changing.”

If you are getting ready for a car journey but worried that you might become tired along the way, there are some steps you can take to tackle potential drowsiness:

  • Pick your time – Try avoiding long road trips between midnight and 6 am, as these hours of the day are when our body clock reaches a natural dip, triggering a sense of sleepiness. In fact, drivers are 20 times more likely to fall asleep at 6 am than – for instance – at 10 pm. 
  • Avoid heavy meals – Large, heavy meals can make you feel tired as the body has to work harder to digest all the food and nutrients. Hence, if you are about to get into your car and are feeling peckish, you may want to have a chocolate bar, light meal, or energising snack instead.
  • Turn off the heating – A warm car can make you feel tired, especially if you have been driving for a fair while. In fact, it can cause dehydration, which is one of the most prominent effects of fatigue. To stay hydrated and alert when on the road, make sure to keep a bottle of water in your vehicle.
  • Drive share – Having two motorists available for a long car journey is crucial. This way, if the current driver starts feeling tired, the other person can take their place and safely continue the road trip.  

From drinking coffee to playing the radio and young age, there are many false myths that drivers cling to when feeling drowsy. It is important to remember that fatigue can have a worrying impact on motorists’ reaction times and abilities. Therefore, you should always keep off the road if you are struggling to stay focused and awake.

With a few tips, though, including carefully picking your travelling time and avoiding large meals, you can nip the problem in the bud and cruise into the horizon with a fresh, lucid brain.