As the vast majority of grey nomads head north now, the issue of long distance driving and fatigue has once again fallen into the spotlight.
Driving large rigs for long periods of time in unfamiliar areas on often flood-damaged roads can be a lethal combination, and the need for extreme caution is obvious. Nonetheless, people are still tempted to push on for those extra few hours to get to that great camping spot they have heard about down the road, or drive past a rest area because they want to get to their night’s destination before the crowds. It is not worth it. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau Fatality Crash Database Study of 2002 showed that 16.6% fatal crashes were fatigue related.
Falling asleep at the wheel is a real danger as you chew up the kilometres on a long straight Outback road. A micro sleep, where a driver of a vehicle falls asleep and awakes almost immediately, is frighteningly common. The driver continues with his previous activity without interruption and usually drives along without any incident. However, if an oncoming vehicle cuts into opposite lane, or if the driver is negotiating a curve, or if the vehicle in front suddenly slows or stops, the normal reflexes are absent to react fast enough and an accident is the result.
Some overseas reports have shown that fatigue induced accidents have some common features. Single vehicle accidents where the vehicle has veered off the road, head on collisions, accidents occurring between 2 to 4 pm and 1 to 5 am and if the driver has been driving continuously for more than five hours are some typical examples of accidents caused by fatigue.
While rest areas may not be as common as they should be on some remote drives, grey nomads should certainly take advantage of them when they are, or any other excuse to stop.
Grey nomads in particular and motorists in general though are not the only ones vulnerable to the temptation to push their bodies too hard.
Air traffic controllers in the US have been advised to take 26-minute naps, after a string of incidents involving workers falling asleep. Five cases of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job have been revealed since March. Scary, huh!
The BBC reports that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) over there is calling for ‘controlled naps’ to be built into night shifts.
Referring to a 1995 study from NASA, which he co-authored, NTSB member and fatigue expert Mark Rosekind said that a 26-minute nap would improve performance by 34% and alertness by 54%.
There was other supporting evidence that said naps of between 20 minutes and 30 minutes were beneficial, he said.
However, the length of the optimal power nap is the subject of much debate. Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Council in the UK, which advises the government on guidelines for drivers, says 26 minutes is a bit too long and risks you falling into a deep sleep.
“Once you get beyond 20 minutes, you risk a deep sleep and you can be much more groggy when you wake up,” he said. “What we recommend is that a nap is combined with a cup of coffee so you have some caffeine, and that takes about 20 minutes to kick in. Have a cup of coffee and get your head down. Done together it has a more powerful effect.”
If you haven’t had a wink of sleep the night before, then this tactic won’t be enough to refresh you, says Mr Horne, but for those that have had merely a poor night’s sleep, it will work. Apparently, longer naps can work if they become part of your daily routine because your body gets used to them and people can wake up quite easily without feeling too groggy.
So, a few micro sleep guidelines.
A 20-minute snooze can enhance alertness
Limit the nap to 45 minutes if you need to spring into action on waking
A 60-minute nap improves alertness for 10 hours
Naps of 90-120 minutes encompass all stages of sleep and help clear the mind.