Driving When Tired: Should You Take the Risk?

View from car windscreen showing blurred lights on road

Have you ever felt sleepy behind the wheel? Suddenly realised that for the last few monotonous minutes on the motorway you’d completely zoned out? Well, PassMeFast is here to snap you out of that behaviour! These scenarios are worryingly common and very dangerous. Yep, that’s right—driving when tired is incredibly risky.

In fact, according to the AA, 1 in 5 accidents on major roads are caused by tiredness. If you’ve ever been guilty of driving while drowsy, this article can help you to get back on the straight and narrow. We cover how tiredness affects driving, the relevant laws you should know and finish off with plenty of tips on how to stay wide awake while hitting the road. Let’s begin!

What does the Highway Code say?

If something’s an important driving topic you can usually find reference to it in the Highway Code, and driving when tired is no different. Check out rule 91 in the box below…

Rule 91

Driving when you are tired greatly increases your risk of collision. To minimise this risk

  • make sure you are fit to drive. Do not begin a journey if you are tired. Get a good night’s sleep before embarking on a long journey
  • avoid undertaking long journeys between midnight and 6am, when natural alertness is at a minimum
  • plan your journey to take sufficient breaks. A minimum break of at least 15 minutes after every two hours of driving is recommended
  • if you feel at all sleepy, stop in a safe place. Do not stop on the hard shoulder of a motorway
  • the most effective ways to counter sleepiness are to drink, for example, two cups of caffeinated coffee and to take a short nap (at least 15 minutes)

Source: GOV.UK


OK, so they’re getting a little ahead of us there by launching into tips on how to avoid driving when tired. The point is, this is a subject deemed serious enough that it is mentioned in the holy grail of driving manuals. In other words, it definitely deserves your attention!

Is it safe to drive when tired?

Grey cat on bed yawning
Image source: Milada Vigerova via Unsplash

As you’ve probably gathered at this point: no, it is not! When controlling a vehicle as big and powerful as a car, you really need to have your wits about you. You need to be able to skilfully control the vehicle, react quickly to changing road conditions and maintain an awareness of everything that is happening around you. The sleepier you are, the trickier these things become.

A big problem is the fact that driving can actually be quite monotonous. As a result, even if you only feel a little bit tired, a smooth, relaxing ride can easily tempt you to drift off. This tendency is depicted in The AA’s Drowsy Driver campaign:

Scary, right?

There are, of course, levels to tiredness. You can’t always be at peak performance whenever you need to drive. That being said, you should never get behind the wheel if you’re feeling noticeably tired.

Is it illegal to drive when tired?

There is no specific law that rules against driving when tired. However, doing so significantly increases your risk of breaking the laws regarding dangerous driving and driving without due care and attention. The penalty for breaking either of these ranges from a fine to prison time.

It is also illegal to fail to declare to the DVLA any medical condition that makes you tired. For example, if you suffer from one or more of the following:

  • moderate or severe obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome (OSAS)
  • narcolepsy
  • cataplexy
  • any other condition that causes excessive sleepiness for at least 3 months

You must inform the DVLA, or risk a fine of up to £1,000. If you fail to do so and are involved in a crash you can also face prosecution.

How does fatigue affect driving?

Stop road sign in front of foliage
Image source: Will Porada via Unsplash

Driving when tired has very similar effects to driving when drunk. This is why it is so dangerous. The following table details some of the main effects that drowsiness can have on your driving:

Impaired judgement/decision making More likely to: take risks; misjudge the space between you and other vehicles; fail to position yourself correctly on the road; generally make bad choices.
Slower reaction times More likely to: fail to stop at red lights or stop signs; collide with other vehicles or objects; fail to notice and avoid developing hazards.
Adverse affects on coordination More likely to: struggle to properly control the car; swerve in and out of lanes; drive erratically; draw the attention of the authorities.

And that doesn’t even begin to cover how bad things can get if you actually fall asleep!

How many hours of sleep do you need before you can drive?

Pink alarm clock on dark table
Image source: Mpho Mojapelo via Unsplash

There is no set answer to this question because everyone is different. The current general consensus from health authorities is that people should aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep a night. If you are a teenager you require slightly more (the raging hormones and pent-up angst burns a lot of energy!).

By the time you are of legal driving age you should have a good idea of how much sleep your body requires. Of course, jobs, kids and general life can sometimes get in the way of achieving optimal sleep. That’s why the good lord invented naps. Seriously, though, if you have a lengthy car journey ahead of you and you haven’t had a good night’s sleep, you should really try to schedule a nap beforehand.

You may be aware of advice to open windows or turn up the radio when you feel tired on a drive. To be perfectly honest, if you’ve reached the point where you need to do this to stay awake, you probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel. At a certain point, nothing is going to reduce risk except actual sleep.

How to get a better night’s sleep

If you are someone who struggles to get a good night’s sleep, here are some things you can try:

  • Avoid caffeinated beverages after 12pm
  • Get outside for some fresh air during the day
  • Exercise (but avoid doing do just before bed)
  • Try not to take naps during the day
  • Open a window to keep your bedroom cool
  • Don’t eat a large meal within 2 hours of your bedtime
  • Avoid looking at screens an hour before you plan to sleep
  • Take a warm bath before bed
  • Spray lavender oil on your pillow
  • Read a book in bed
  • Stick to a set bedtime

What about long journeys?

Man in denim shirt sleeping in back of car
Image source: Elvis Bekmanis via Unsplash

Longer journeys like road trips present a bit of a conundrum. You might be perfectly awake when you start, but it is somewhat inevitable that you will start to get tired as the ride drags on. It is really important, therefore, that you break these journeys up. Whether it’s stopping for a coffee break, or pulling into a hotel for the night, make sure you give yourself opportunities to rest and take your mind off the road. If you’re driving with companions, split the driving responsibilities between you. This allows you to take a kip in the backseat while someone else has the wheel.

If you’re riding solo, limit yourself to 8 hours a day of driving, with plenty of breaks included. There is a reason taxi, bus and HGV drivers are legally restricted to a certain number of driving hours in a shift. Our bodies are not designed to stay alert for this length of time. When on the road, be attuned to how you feel so that you can track your tiredness. If you find that your attention is starting to drift, you’re yawning a lot or your eyelids feel heavy, it’s time to turn off the engine for a while.

Tips on how to stay awake and alert while driving

1. DON’T set off on a drive if you already feel tired

2. DON’T eat a large meal before going for a drive

3. DON’T over-exert yourself before driving

4. DON’T plan a drive at a time you would usually be asleep

5. DO take plenty of breaks during long car journeys

6. DO drink caffeinated beverages before and/or during long drives

7. DO share driving responsibilities where possible and take naps when the opportunity arises

8. DO park your car and go to sleep if you feel you are too tired to drive*

*if you can’t use a hotel, you can legally sleep in your car as long as you are parked in a safe place

The potential dangers of driving when tired is a subject that often doesn’t earn the attention it deserves. This is perhaps because tiredness is a normal feeling that each of us experiences at least once a day! Despite this, drowsy driving can be as risky as drink-driving. So, the next time you head out on a lengthy car journey, make sure you heed the advice above to protect yourself and other road users.

For more great driving news and tips, head over to the PassMeFast Blog!

By Isobel Robb

Isobel enjoys the freedom of the open road and loves driving to new places. She's here to offer helpful hints and tips to improve your motoring skills. When not keeping up to date with the latest driving info you can find her discovering new restaurants or exhausting her Netflix subscription.

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