The link between fatigue and an elevated risk of accidents is a long-established one. But with no definitive test for measuring how excessive tiredness is affecting driver behaviour, identifying fatigue as a key factor behind road accidents is problematic. Drivers are unlikely to admit that they were tired while behind the wheel, and, in the case of driver fatalities, of course there is no way of finding out how the driver was feeling immediately before the incident.
Managing the risk of fatigue among employees who drive for work is also challenging. Although companies that recognise the risk posed by fatigue will have clear rules on driving hours as part of their driver risk management programmes, changing working patterns – portfolio careers (where individuals have several part-time jobs), the gig economy and an ageing population with caring responsibilities – mean that employers often have less control over the demands on workers. Experts believe there’s anecdotal evidence that these factors have influenced road accident statistics and a failure to significantly cut the number of incidents.
“We’ve got safer vehicles than ever, and we’ve invested in new roads, and yet we’re still seeing a flatlining in the number of road deaths,” notes Neil Greig, policy and research director at road safety charity IAM RoadSmart. “In the 1970s, 80s and 90s there were tremendous improvements, but there’s
been no real change in the past seven or eight years. We think part of the reason is that people are distracted by technology, but fatigue is an issue that’s in the mix too – it’s just that it’s difficult to isolate fatigue as a cause.”
Employers are in a position to make decisions that will mitigate the risk of driver fatigue resulting in an accident. Karen McDonnell, occupational health and safety policy adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), says training and culture are important “to give employees the opportunity to make the right choices when they’re driving”.
Tony Greenidge, IAM RoadSmart’s business development director, agrees: “Drivers are very often employed to do a job – making deliveries or whatever the business is; they’re not employed for the quality of their driving. So companies need to focus on safer driving.”
Technology can also reduce risks if used correctly and sensitively. More broadly, some campaigners believe that large organisations making contracts dependent on tight driver safety policies may provide the strong mechanism for change that’s needed.
Why consider fatigue?
According to research cited by the road safety charity Brake, one in six crashes resulting in death or injury on major roads is fatigue-related (bit.ly/35Cmi1r); while the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) now puts the figure at one in five. Forty per cent of fatigue-related crashes involve commercial vehicle drivers, who are often in the largest vehicles on the road and have the potential to cause the most harm (bit.ly/2PFPkrl).
The HSE defines fatigue as the “decline in mental and/or physical performance that results from prolonged exertion, sleep loss and/or disruption of the internal clock”. Fatigue causes slower reactions, a diminished ability to process information, reduced awareness and attention, poor coordination and a tendency to underestimate risk. Some road safety campaigners argue that excessively tired drivers are as dangerous as those under the influence of alcohol.
Sleep-related crashes are most common on motorways and dual carriageways (long, monotonous roads) and typically involve a vehicle running off the road or crashing into the one in front. They often happen at high speed because the driver doesn’t brake.
There are multiple causes of fatigue: stress, types of medication, a lack of or disturbed/irregular sleep, and driving for long periods. Darker nights and cold weather can contribute to feelings of fatigue, according to RoSPA.
Although employers are in a position to control some of these, they cannot control all. However, clear policies and effective training for fleet vehicle drivers and for grey-fleet drivers (those who drive their own vehicles for work and are paid mileage) can mitigate the risks.
Using technology to mitigate the risks
The development of in-car tech provides one of the newest ways to manage the fatigue risk.
In-vehicle technology known as DDDR – driver distraction and drowsiness recognition – can detect signs of fatigue, for example by monitoring eye movement and ‘nodding head’, and alert the driver if it detects signs of fatigue. Other systems monitor heart rate or steering and braking activity.
As ever, the effectiveness of such technology depends on how it’s used.
“If the driver isn’t alerted that they are showing signs of fatigue and they think, ‘I’ll just carry on driving then [without taking a break]’, that negates the benefits,” says Neil Greig. “But if used properly, it’s a useful option.”
Karen McDonnell agrees, cautioning that it’s early days but “the technology will advance”.
One issue technology can’t resolve is the tension between job demands – needing to get somewhere by a certain time, for example, or needing to make just one more delivery – and the extra time needed to take rest breaks. Tony Greenidge stresses that there should be “no comeback on the individual if they take a break because they are alerted to signs of fatigue.”
Managing risk effectively is the starting point, suggests McDonnell: “You begin with risk assessment and safer journey planning, and make sure all the ‘traditional’ measures are in place.”
There are things that drivers can do – and employers can stipulate that they must do – to reduce feelings of fatigue while on the road. After two hours, driving performance deteriorates, and the longer you drive, the more rest you need to recover, so commercial drivers are especially susceptible.
“There is some scientific basis to the widely publicised advice to stop and take a break at least every two hours,” says Greig. “But the break needs to be a minimum of 20 minutes to be effective.”
Some sources advise drinking a caffeinated drink and resting while the caffeine takes effect. But Greig sounds a note of caution about energy drinks, which can produce a ‘cliff-edge effect’ where the individual experiences a short-term boost in alertness followed by a slump.
An effective driver risk management programme is essential. “There are those companies that know all about the risk of fatigue and have rules in place, such as don’t drive home after a late meeting, or after a certain number of hours driving, stay in a hotel,” notes Greig. “But there are still those companies that will expect all of their car-based sales people to be at a meeting in Manchester at 9am on a Wednesday, irrespective of the hours they’ve been on the road.”
Providing information to drivers on the risks and control measures is crucial, as driver behaviour is key. Using fear tactics around prosecution to persuade budget holders to invest in training is a fairly empty threat, given that corporate manslaughter legislation has not been used to prosecute for road deaths, and road accidents don’t often result in enforcement action under general health and safety legislation. Greenidge prefers to focus on the benefits of promoting driver wellbeing and the cost savings associated with reducing collisions.
After all, he reflects, “It seems bizarre that some financial directors would rather set aside £100,000 to cover the cost of road accidents than spend £10,000 on driver training!”
40% of fatigue-related crashes involve commercial vehicle drivers, who are often in the largest vehicles
Lifting the lid
Fatigue is a “very difficult subject to broach”, acknowledges Greenidge, “because if you lift the lid, ask the question, and find that you do have an issue with fatigue, you then have to do something. So lots of firms sweep it under the carpet.”
Added to this, there can be a reluctance to talk about fatigue because the root cause may stem from an individual’s home life – a new baby, caring responsibilities – a medical condition, such as sleep apnoea (which disrupts the quality of sleep causing fatigue and increasing the likelihood of ‘micro-sleeps’ behind the wheel).
“Employers need to create the conditions in which workers feel able to have a conversation with you about what’s happening outside work,” suggests McDonnell. “Employees often don’t know how to approach their employers with problems like insomnia, relationship difficulties or the pressure of caring responsibilities. Fatigue is under-recognised. We’ve got all the building blocks – the drivers’ hours regulations and so on – but what’s more difficult is developing the ‘soft’ skills to enable these conversations to happen.”
Greig stresses the importance of consultation in developing policies which reflect that road safety is everyone’s responsibility.
“Employers need to negotiate and develop their policy with the staff association or trade union so they can say, ‘We will make sure we don’t put you under pressure, but you have responsibilities too.’ In this way you can create a good policy and get staff to sign it, to confirm their agreement and understanding.”
For Greenidge, an “education” approach is the way forward. Fatigue is difficult to talk about and difficult to tackle, he acknowledges.
“But organisations can put in place robust driver risk management, and in this way demonstrate that they have taken steps to mitigate the risks. It doesn’t mean an organisation will never have an accident – you can’t always get tangible results; it’s more subtle than that – but by training drivers you give them the opportunity to make the right decisions.”
On a positive note, both Greig and Greenidge point to encouraging signs that large organisations may help to push road safety up the corporate agenda by bringing pressure to bear on contractors to include road safety in their policies; Highways England is one organisation leading the way.
And we know from the construction industry that applying pressure through the supply chain can be
a hugely effective way of raising standards.
The general duties laid down in the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Management Regs to ensure the health and safety of employees (and others) as far as practicable and to assess and control risks apply to driving as they do to any other work activity.
Drivers of goods and passenger vehicles are subject to EU and UK Drivers’ Hours Rules and must record their hours of work and maintain log books. The rules vary according to the vehicle. For example, coach and lorry drivers must comply with strict EU regulations which limit driving time to nine hours per day and require a 45-minute break after 4.5 hours. Others, for example van drivers, must instead comply with domestic rules, which allow 10 hours’ driving a day and require a 30-minute break after 5.5 hours’ driving.