Using the roads is the single most dangerous thing that most of us do every day. It is more than a little terrifying when you think about it. Especially for drivers, we control a ballistic missile weighing more than a tonne travelling at anything up to 120 kph.
As we fiddle with the radio, yawn, daydream, we are at every single moment only a heartbeat away from dying or killing someone else.
In Ireland we tend to think of the ‘big three’ killers – speed, non-wearing of seatbelts and alcohol. But most countries, especially those with well developed motorways, recognise fatigue as the fourth.
There is good scientific data on how much tiredness slows driver reactions and I have seen estimates that show that it could be a factor in up to 20 per cent of Irish road deaths. The key for motorists, especially on long journeys, is to appreciate the danger and not ignore the warning signs.
With the summer months approaching this is a time of the year when many families will change from the daily commute through traffic to long motorway runs across the country and across the Continent. Therein lies the danger. Long hours on good roads leave the best of us vulnerable not just to falling asleep but to losing concentration.
You can now travel from Cork or Limerick all the way to Belfast on almost unbroken motorway. That is about five hours of non-stop cruising. It is virtually impossible for someone to be completely alert for that long.
I know I can’t. We are all different but for me I genuinely find it a strain to put in long, continuous hours especially if I don’t have company in the car. Even the run down to Galway from Dublin, only two hours these days on an excellent road, can be hard going for me. At this time of the year the evening sun and the glare from the road strains my eyes and my shoulder muscles knot up.
These are genuine danger signs. Fatigue does not mean that you literally fall asleep at the wheel. It is more likely that you have that heavy feeling in your eyelids, you start feeling stiff and sore and you catch yourself as your attention wanders.
Research indicates that drivers who persist in fighting sleep can experience ‘micro sleeps’ whereby they will drift in and out of full consciousness even while their eyes stay open.
If a driver has a ‘micro sleep’ for just four seconds while travelling at a speed of 100 km/h, the car will have travelled 111 metres without a driver in control. That is almost one and a half times the width of Croke Park.
If you are stifling the yawns or feeling the stiffness in your joints then you should appreciate that this is not just discomfort. Long distance truck drivers have a lot of training and experience to cope with long hours on the road, but professionals know the danger and the law prevents them from driving too many hours for good reason.
Experienced road-warriors who do long mileages as a habit become experienced and quite good at it. The likes of me are more likely to be caught out.
This is why in the AA we spend a fair bit of time banging on about the lack of proper service areas on our motorways. They are a basic safety feature not just a convenience.
One thing we can often do is share the driving. Very typically when an Irish family loads up the car to drive off on holidays he will wind up behind the wheel for more than 90 per cent of the trip. There is no real reason for this beyond habit.
It is really important to recognise the signs and don’t fight them. Take a break every few hours, and take advantage of what service areas there are. Caffeine drinks do work in the short term and even the act of getting out, stretching your legs and taking a short break helps a great deal.