We hear about driver fatigue a lot and know that falling asleep while driving can be fatal, but why is it that sometimes we can’t override the sudden need to sleep when we’re mid-dangerous task?

Put simply, because it’s monotonous.

Lack of sleep and being awake too long are, of course, the main reasons drivers accidentally nod off, however, it’s not uncommon to have “lapses in concentration” or to drift into a microsleep, even if you’re well rested.

It’s one of the reasons why driver fatigue is one of Queensland Police Service’s “fatal five” along with:

  • Speeding
  • Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Not wearing a seatbelt
  • Distraction.

According to the Queensland Government: “driver fatigue is particularly dangerous because it affects everyone, regardless of age or experience.”

“When you’re fatigued, the amount of time you spend performing any set task, like stopping at a red light or avoiding a hazard, takes longer because you can become unfocused or easily distracted,” according to the Government.

Recognising the signs

Professor Jim Horne is a sleep expert at the Loughborough University’s Sleep Research Centre in the UK. He described microsleeps to BBC News as the moment when “your eyelids start drooping and you start to lose contact with reality”.

“You’re asleep for a few seconds, then wake up, often with a jolt,” he said.

When the brain goes to sleep involuntarily you’ll likely:

  • Experience head snapping or nodding
  • Have droopy eyelids and struggle to keep your eyes open
  • Wake suddenly, with a sharp jerk of the head.

Sound familiar? It happens to the best of us and is obviously not a safe state to be in while driving.

Other signs of fatigue:

  • Yawning
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Experiencing tired or sore eyes
  • Reacting slowly
  • Feeling drowsy, restless, bored or irritable
  • Making fewer and larger steering corrections
  • Missing road signs
  • Having difficulty staying in the correct lane.


Should I stop and rest?


According to the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety Queensland (CARRS-Q) “fatigue contributes to 20 to 30 per cent of all deaths on our roads”.

Some other facts about driving tired:

  • A driver is four times more likely to have a fatal fatigue crash if they are driving between 10:00pm and dawn
  • Nearly 30 per cent of all fatal fatigue crashes occur during public and school holiday periods
  • Being awake for more than 17 hours is similar to having a blood alcohol level more than 0.05.

For tips on how to avoid fatigue check out these fact sheets:

You’ll find the same advice across the board. If you’re feeling sleepy, stop, stretch your legs, even just for a few minutes. It sounds simple, but the problem is often exacerbated because many of us don’t want to waste time by pausing in the middle of our commute. It’s understandable. We’ve all got somewhere to be. But, as the saying goes, “better to get there late than not at all”.