At this time of year, the wrapping of gifts goes on late into the night, there are early morning dashes to the supermarket and long, weary days preparing food and readying your home for guests. Even with a mince pie to hand and comedy jumper to raise your spirits, many of us are so tired we’re running on empty.
It’s especially difficult for drivers. Millions of us take to the roads over Christmas, but all too often we’re so exhausted we’re just grateful for some peace and quiet on the M25.
The recommended eight hours of sleep may end up being half that. Yet fatigue and driving are a dangerous combination.
Last August, Dr Ronak Patel died after crashing his car head-on into a lorry. The trainee anaesthetist had worked three night shifts in a row at the Norfolk and Norwich hospital. Police attributed the tragic accident to Dr Patel falling asleep at the wheel.
Only the month before, lorry driver Claudiu Almasan, ploughed into a queue of stationary cars, near Oxford, killing Diana Allan. In Ireland, in 2014, Anthony Handley killed a young mother and baby, after a ‘micro-sleep’ saw his car leave the road.
These are just a snapshot of a widespread and serious problem on Britain’s roads. In America, studies by the Governors Highway Safety Association, a group representing state highway safety departments, estimated that on US roads there were 5,000 deaths a year caused by sleep deprivation.
UK roads to be swamped by 12 million drivers on Friday, 23 December
The AA asked over 19,000 of its members when they’d be driving over the Christmas period. Just over 40 per cent said that they would be on the road on Friday, 23 December. If a similar trend were to be followed nationally, that would be equivalent to 12 million motors crowding the nation’s already stretched road network.
According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), fatigue may be a contributory factor in 20 per cent of the UK’s accidents. Given nearly 1800 people were killed on roads in 2015, sleep deprivation could be behind nearly 360 deaths a year.
RoSPA says that tired drivers involved in an accident face a much higher chance of being killed or seriously injured, for the simple reason that they don’t have time to react, and brake or swerve.
Pro tips for safer driving when tired at Christmas
Richard Gladman is the Institute of Advanced Motorists’ head of driving and riding standards. He says it’s important that driver’s plan their journey, especially if it’s a long one.
“Having a full understanding of your route allows the drive to be smoother and also lets you know where you can take 20 minute breaks, if needed,” says Gladman.
Also, it may seem obvious, but don’t drive at times of the day when your body would normally be asleep. “Driving between 12am and 6am and just after lunch are the times when our bodies would most like to be asleep,” points out Gladman.
If you do drive, then “regular breaks every two hours” are vital to keep a driver alert and focussed on the dangers around them. And if you’ve got a travelling companion who can drive and is insured, ask them to take turns behind the wheel.
The IAM’s safety guru also stresses that nobody should undertake a long trip if they feel exhausted: “Ask someone else to drive, or take public transport.”
RoSPA’S tips to stay safe when tired
Had a big one the night before? Was it the office party or a neighbour’s annual drinks bash? Then you’re one of the most at risk on the road, says RoSPA. Ensure your blood alcohol level is safe, by using a breathalyser, and sleep off a headache.
Or if you’ve just polished off a three course Christmas lunch, jumping into a car means you’ll be at greater risk of falling asleep. So plan your departure with this in mind, and be prepared to stop for a break and a coffee.
If you drive for a living, then your employer has to meet guidelines laid down by the Health and Safety Executive. According to ROSPA, one of the most important elements of this is ensuring drivers are not at risk of falling asleep. The safety organisation has a helpful journey planner for employers and employees. It may not have you on the edge of your seat, but it might just save your life.
James is a motoring journalist and former magazine editor at BBC Top Gear and Auto Express. He has scooped, reported on and reviewed most new cars of the past 20 years, and currently contributes to the Driving section of The Sunday Times.