Specialists at the Sleep Health Foundation have raised grave concerns that many Australians wrongly believe their tiredness behind the wheel can be completely cured with a rest stop.
"That's a dangerous assumption and one that could sadly cost us lives," says Dr David Hillman, chair of the foundation, the leading national advocate for sleep health. "Statistics clearly show that where accident risk is concerned, it is sleepiness that's the problem. Sleep is the cure when sleepy, and rest alone won't do."
More than 185,000 people have died on Australian roads since the road toll began in 1925, with an average of 2055 adults and children killed annually. Road trauma takes a huge financial toll too, costing the country $27 billion a year.
Research shows one in every five car accidents is related to fatigue. The fatigue is usually caused by general sleep deprivation, too many hours awake in one stretch or because the person is driving at night when their body clock thinks they should be asleep.
Dr Hillman says there is widespread confusion about fatigue and how it's best cured.
"What many people don't understand is that there's two types of fatigue, the physical kind that can be relieved with a rest, and mental fatigue that can only be relieved by sleep," he says. "It's this mental fatigue that's far more likely to kill or injure someone on our roads. Clearing up this confusion will save lives."
Victoria's Transport Accident Commission has acknowledged the issue with a hard-hitting 'You Can't Fight Sleep' campaign urging drowsy drivers to pull over and take a 15-minute power nap. But still the confusion remains, with most drivers thinking that simply having a rest break is the right thing to do and the need for sleep ignored.
As the silly season approaches, it's more important than ever that the public understands the true dangers of fatigue. "At Christmas time, levels of mental fatigue are at their highest as people burn the candle at both ends buying presents, cooking food and going to numerous festive parties and concerts," Dr Hillman says.
"By the time many people, especially parents, get in the car for their long-awaited and desperately-needed summer break they're absolutely exhausted and really shouldn't be getting behind the wheel at all."
The fatigue they're experiencing is mental, the deadly kind. Sleep is the only solution to allow the brain to recover its normal healthy function. Adequate sleep - that's 7 to 8 hours a night - is both a necessary part of preparation for driving and the cure when sleepiness strikes, Dr Hillman explains.
Signs a driver is drowsy include blurred vision and difficulty keeping their eyes open.
"If a passenger notices head nodding or jerking, chances are their driver had a 'micro sleep' and has only escaped unscathed by luck," the specialist says.
The foundation has top tips to keep drivers safe on the roads this silly season. The best is the good rule of thumb to always have at least seven hours sleep under your belt before driving a long-haul journey.
"We also recommend avoiding driving between 1am and 6am, because the brain is least alert at those times, or if you've been awake 17 hours or more," Dr Hillman says.
The foundation urges drivers to recognise the danger signs, like reliance on loud music or fresh air to stay awake. Coffee is another alertness crutch, and while caffeine can boost driving performance, it only benefits for an hour and can go on to damage your next sleep.
"The best advice we can give is pull over and take a power nap before it's too late," he says. "Don't let this festive season be filled with regret."
Drowsy Driving: Signs You're in Trouble
• Eyes closing or going out of focus
• Trouble keeping the head up
• Cannot stop yawning
• Wandering thoughts, difficulty concentrating on driving
• Cannot remember recent driving
• Drifting between lanes, off the road or missing signs
• Very heavy eyelids
• Slow blinking
How to Stay Safe on the Roads
• Make sure you've had at least seven hours sleep the night before a long drive
• If you have to drive for long periods of time, try to take a short power nap after lunch
• Share the driving with someone else and help keep each other awake
• Switch drivers every two hours
• Don't drive between 1am and 6am
• Don't drive if you've been awake for more than 17 hours
• Pull over and take a short nap if you notice difficulty keeping your eyes open, or find yourself relying on loud music, energy drinks or fresh air to stay awake
For further information, contact on (02) 8814 8655.