Sleeping at The Wheel

A recent survey undertaken by driving safety charity, Brake, has revealed that one in eight drivers fall asleep whilst at the wheel.

More than a quarter of drivers reported starting a journey when they feel tired and 29% admit continuing their journey despite noticing signs of drowsiness. Sleep deprivation impairs coordination, judgment and causes longer reaction times. Researchers have also suggested that driving after 17 to 18 hours of being awake is as harmful as driving over the legal alcohol limit.

Going further than sleep deprivation, the study noted that one in eight drivers have ‘head-nodded’ at the wheel in the past year. This occurs when someone nods off to sleep for between two and thirty seconds, often without realising that they have been asleep, and puts lives at risk; 1,500 people are killed every year by drivers falling asleep at the wheel, which will be considered an aggravating factor in the case of an accident with the courts being unsympathetic towards drivers who take unnecessary risks. Judges warn that ‘drivers do not normally fall asleep without warning and the proper course of action for a motorist who feels drowsy is to stop driving and rest’.

Each case will turn on its facts, but driving when too tired to stay awake will be deemed dangerous rather than careless by the police, who will look to prosecute for the more serious offence. A conviction for dangerous driving carries with it a mandatory driving disqualification and also a risk of a prison sentence. Find out more about the penalties for dangerous or careless driving.

Employers also have a responsibility to ensure that employees driving on work business are in a fit state to do so. Taking appropriate rest breaks, whether required by law or not, is vital in reducing the risk of accidents occurring. Employers should carry out a risk assessment of high mileage drivers or those who could be at risk of falling asleep. For example, sales executives having late meetings and then driving significant miles home, or staff who fly into the UK on their return from a long haul business trip. Employers should review their driver policies to ensure that they take account of these risks and in appropriate circumstances, give drivers an alternative to continuing with a journey when too tired.

Blake Lapthorn’s Motoring Offences team has vast experience of defending motorists accused of allegations such as careless and dangerous driving and it is vitally important to take proper legal advice in situations such as these. The team has recently seen a first conviction under the Corporate Manslaughter Act and employers do have a duty to manage on road risk, particularly where it involves tired drivers.