In a previous life I once worked in health promotion, campaigning to reduce the harm from alcohol and to improve government alcohol policies. To say it was challenging would be an understatement. One of the hard and fast rules about better alcohol policy is that policies that are popular don’t work, and that those that do work aren’t popular.
Nevertheless, we’ve seen some big improvements over the years when it comes to alcohol-related car crashes, which have decreased for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there’s been a lot of money and effort invested in public education. That’s been helped by some easily understood guidelines on staying under the 0.05 limit.
On top of that there’s been a crackdown on drink-driving that included roadside testing.
And finally, there’s been quite a bit of publicity over drink-driving legal cases, which has raised public awareness.
A couple of Australian academics, Madeline Sprajcer and Drew Dawson, have recently conducted a study to find out if similar strategies could be employed to reduce the death toll from another killer on our roads, fatigue.
They started by asking how much sleep is needed for safe driving and discovered that having less than four to five hours of sleep in the last 24 hours roughly doubled the risk of a crash, and that each hour of lost sleep significantly increases your risk of crashing.
But they point out that while it’s reasonable to expect drivers to have sufficient sleep before getting behind the wheel, legally enforcing that is fraught with problems.
Because while drinking and driving is a choice, many of us can’t just decide to get more sleep. Sometimes life gets in the way in the form of families, shift work and sleeping disorders like sleep apnea.
There’s another problem, too. Unlike alcohol with its breath test and its BAC, there’s no objective way to measure how tired you are, or how impaired you are through lack of sleep, and that makes it hard to regulate.
The researchers point out that that hasn’t stopped one jurisdiction, the US state of New Jersey, from introducing laws that find drivers to be legally impaired if they’ve had no sleep in the last 24 hours.
In Australia there’s no such requirement, and Sprajcer and Dawson are talking to road safety stakeholders and community members about measures to regulate fatigued driving.
That promises to be quite a long journey, but for now they’re recommending “that at the very least, more specific public education and guidance for drivers on how to avoid driving while fatigued would be welcomed. For example, easy-to-follow advice on how to decide whether or not you are too fatigued to drive would likely be well received.”
Right now, they’re offering this wise advice: if you’ve slept less than five hours in the last 24, then you probably shouldn’t drive.