Tips to avoid the dangers of driving while tired

Man driving on a busy road at night
Wake-up call: a couple of strong coffees and a nap can help you stay alert Credit: Alamy

Do you ever find yourself fighting sleep when you're behind the wheel? This expert advice from a driver safety researcher will help you stay awake on the road

Driving while tired is the experience that possibly best defines my life as a motorist. Most of the time, I have a general feeling of fatigue from too many early starts or late nights.

And I won’t lie. On some long journeys, I find myself battling drooping eyelids and swimming vision as my head rolls over my shoulders like a ship on a stormy sea.

When you cover the miles I do (in excess of 1,000 some weeks) you soon become accustomed to this sensation. It is accompanied by a faintly sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, born as much of fear about what happens if I were to nod off as the bodily effects of fatigue.

I am usually sufficiently awake to realise this is by no means a desirable state of affairs. So I adopt strategies to cope – Eighties hard rock played at full volume; windows and sunroof peeled open to create Force 10 gales that ricochet across my face; and the occasional session of scream therapy, where I shout the names of assorted 20th-century political figures to try to enliven my senses.

I’d assumed this was an experience shared by many others. But a recent Telegraph survey, conducted in partnership with Aviva and YouGov, actually suggests that I am very much in the minority.

A total of 1,094 British drivers were asked about their attitudes to a wide range of issues, including fatigue, and 88 per cent said they have never or hardly ever struggled to stay awake when driving. Of those who did admit to this experience, a tiny proportion said it happens "quite often" or "frequently".

Moreover, when asked about the factors most likely to make them speed or disobey traffic rules, only 5 per cent named tiredness, making it the least-mentioned category.

This pattern is also seen in drivers' understanding of when they are most alert. Respondents agreed that the optimum time for driving is between 9am and 1pm. But the time slot that they named as the second best for alertness was 1pm to 5pm – a period when I feel akin to a human Agincourt: the scene of a fierce battle between competing states, in this case sleep and consciousness.

It turns out I am right: this really is a bad time to be behind the wheel, and represents one of two peak slots for fatigue-related accidents (the other is 2am-6am), according to Dr Samantha Jamson, a researcher in driver safety at the University of Leeds, whom I consulted for expert advice about the relation between tiredness and driving.

She says: “People tend to have a post-lunch slump, during which they are not anywhere near their peak in terms of alertness. It is interesting that the drivers in the survey don’t recognise this, or the effects of tiredness on driving more generally. That could be for a variety of reasons.”

One reason for the misperception about alertness is that most people do not have to drive in the afternoon, so are unaware how hard it can be to stay awake. Dr Jamson says another factor may be that many driving at that time have no choice but to press on to the next appointment.

“If you don’t have the luxury of stopping to sleep, you may deny the extent of the fatigue you feel. That may explain why people haven’t identified this as a time when tiredness is likely to be a real challenge,” she says.

So it has to be asked whether drivers are in denial about their experience behind the wheel, especially when it comes to tiredness.

Dr Jamson says that, at the very least, they experience a form of cognitive dissonance about it. “People [in the survey] may not deliberately lie about their experiences. It’s more that they don’t fully understand or remember how they behave or feel while driving when they are asked to think about it in the abstract.”

It would stand to reason that the more you drive, the harder it is to maintain this disconnection between reality and perception. That would explain why my own experience of tiredness is so out of step with the survey findings. I can say with confidence that when you spend the hours in a car that I do, you develop a keen awareness of what it is like to battle the sandman while careering along a motorway.

Adam Beckett, propositions director for Aviva, offers the following advice: “It’s vitally important that you stay alert while driving and don’t let tiredness take over. The key thing is to plan your journey wherever possible so you don’t have to drive tired – and take breaks on long journeys every couple of hours.

"Keep the temperature cool in the car and have the radio on – these will help keep you alert. But, if you do feel tired don’t try to fight it. Pull over safely and have a rest. The risks of having an accident are too great – don’t take that chance.”

While there is no way to prevent myself from feeling tired behind the wheel, therefore, it does seem that I should discard the practice of screaming Michael Heseltine’s name while listening to Def Leppard in a breezier-than-average car. I’ll simply pull over for a double espresso and a snooze instead.

Are you a safe driver? Download the Aviva Drive app to put your on-the-road skills to the test. Plus, find out more about the Aviva safe driving challenge here