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Falling asleep at the wheel

Published on 14.10.2020

Road safety

Drowsiness at the wheel is one of those topics that is worth bringing up at regular intervals to maintain an awareness of just how dangerous it can be. Of course, this only happens to others, but those who have already experienced it all thought that, too, and not all of them got away with just scaring a kid with a near-miss. Some have paid with their lives for underestimating the risks involved, or else ruined the lives of other users who simply had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
 
Drowsiness is an involuntary surrender to sleep and as such can be overwhelming. It isn't due to carelessness or a lack of concentration but occurs suddenly and without the driver realising it until moments later when they awaken with a start. It may only last a few seconds, but this is more than enough time for a disaster to happen, as many analyses of the phenomenon have shown. People who are well rested are not prone to drowsiness, but this fresh disposition disappears over the course of many hours spent at the wheel, especially when not interspersed with adequate breaks. This is when fatigue slowly sets in, without the driver noticing it, gradually reducing their driving capabilities and in particular their reflexes and peripheral vision. They become decreasingly aware of the complexity of the traffic around them, fail to notice that they are crossing safety lines or road boundary lines, are oblivious to signs indicating hazards, etc. and will soon drift into their first microsleep. Driving along a motorway at 130km/h, you’d be covering over 100m during a quick 3-second catnap, without having any control over the vehicle.
 
Drowsiness takes hold suddenly, but not unexpectedly! There are, in fact, various warning signs that will always appear before you fall asleep and convey a clear message, if you know how to read it. Some of these signs, observed in isolation, can easily go unnoticed, but put them all together and there’s no doubt about what’s happening. Repeated yawning, a need to change position in your seat, your head tipping forwards involuntarily, your mind drifting away and a tingling sensation in the eyes are all signs that you are about to doze off. If they are aware of the danger, many drivers try to counteract it using various methods that have been praised by colleagues as being effective, such as winding down the windows to let in large amounts of fresh air, turning on the radio, drinking coffee, or even, in the case of smokers, smoking a cigarette. But all of these are quick fixes with very limited effects lasting just a few minutes maximum. In reality, there is only one recognised cure that will eliminate the danger: sleep! You don’t need to sleep for hours; most of the time, a 30-45-minute nap gives the brain enough rest to be able to drive safely again.
 
That said, if you’ve still a long way to go before reaching your destination, there is nothing to prevent you from stopping and taking another such break later on. Of course, if you’re driving along a motorway, you won’t pull onto the hard shoulder but will instead find the nearest rest area or, failing that, leave the motorway.
 
 
 
 

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