Driving tired as risky as driving drunk?

Driving tired as risky as driving drunk?

We should be aware of the risks of getting behind the wheel after a few drinks, but have we ever considered that driving when tired can be just as dangerous? We wanted to find out how setting off when tired and after consuming alcohol can both severely affect how safely you drive. So, we got in touch with some road safety experts, to understand the dangers of each, and how they can put you and your passengers’ lives at risk.

Driving drunk

We spoke with Kevin Clinton, the Head of Road Safety at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) about the extreme risks of drink driving, and how consuming alcohol directly affects the ability to drive safely. He tells us that “any amount of alcohol slows reactions, impairs judgement of speed and distance, reduces the field of vision, and in the same way that it lowers inhibitions it can make drivers over-confident and more likely to take risks.”

What are the warning signs?

  • Driving significantly faster or slower than the speed limit
  • Swerving across the road or swaying between lanes
  • Driving without headlights on at night
  • Abruptly stopping or accelerating quickly
  • Tailgating
  • Almost hitting the curb, objects or other vehicles
  • Failing to stop or start in time

Driving drunk in numbers

driving drunk in numbers

Although the number of drink driving collisions have dropped considerably over the years, there’s still too many deaths occurring as a result of people driving under the influence of alcohol. According to Clinton, with “a blood alcohol level of between 50mg and 80mg (which is the current legal limit in England and Wales)” drivers are “2 to 2.5 times more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers with no alcohol.” Liz Brooker, a Drink Drive Specialist at Road Safety GB, warns us that the only safe limit is to have no drink at all, as it’s much “easier to say no to the first drink than the second or third.”

Clinton reveals that if you’re above the legal limit and you’re driving or attempting to drive, “you could get six months in prison, an unlimited fine, and a driving ban for at least a year.” However, if you cause a death, you can receive an unlimited fine, a ban for at least two years and up to 14 years in prison.
We carried out a survey1 in conjunction with YouGov, which revealed that over half (55%) of people think lifetime bans should be enforced for drink drivers. Despite this, 70,000 drivers are still failing the breath test every year. This suggests that people not only continue to break the law, but are also still risking a serious accident, or even worse, a fatality.

Driving tired

Our survey revealed that more than half of people admit they’ve previously struggled to stay awake while driving. One in 20 confess that they’re most likely to speed or disobey traffic laws when tired, but do drivers realise just how dangerous this can be?

According to Clinton, “the speed at which information is processed is reduced by sleepiness. The quality of decision-making may also be affected.” Brooker adds that “doing any task that requires concentration and co-ordination is never done well when we are tired. We often make small, slight errors that may not have any great impact on our own safety or that of others, however now make that slight error at 70mph on a motorway and the consequences become dramatically high.”

What are the warning signs?

  • Increased difficulty concentrating and distracted thoughts
  • Yawning
  • Heavy eyelids or eyes starting to ‘roll’
  • Neck muscles relaxing
  • Head drooping
  • Drifting between lanes
  • Missing signs or exits and getting lost

Driving tired in numbers

driving tired in numbers

With one in five accidents on the roads sleep-related, it’s evident that a high proportion of people are still driving when they’re not fully awake and in control of their vehicles. If you doze off at the wheel and have an accident, there’s a much higher chance of a serious injury or fatality because of the high speed impact which occurs during the crash. Brooker explains “the big problem is that with our eyes closed we don’t see the danger. So we don’t react, we don’t use the brakes, and we hit the other object at the speed we were travelling at.” Clinton reveals that driver fatigue may be a contributory factor in “up to one quarter of fatal and serious accidents” as a result.

According to Brooker, “a staggering 85% of sleep-related crashes involve male drivers. It also tends to be younger drivers, as in under 30’s that are at higher risk.” This is because these “younger drivers may be more likely to push the boundaries and be more likely to start a journey when tired.”

Only 17% of our survey respondents think that lorries and vans are most responsible for causing road traffic accidents. However Brooker reveals that work drivers are at risk of being tired because “they will no doubt spend longer in the driving seat.” In fact, “around 40% of tiredness-related crashes involve someone driving a work vehicle.”

Contrary to some drivers’ knowledge, the penalties for causing an incident when tired behind the wheel can be as equally strict as drink driving. Brooker reveals that “if you cause a death while driving tired, you can be charged with death by dangerous driving. The maximum penalty for this is 14 years in prison” – the same length of time as a drink driving conviction.

When are drivers most alert?


Our survey exposed that drivers feel least alert from evening time through to the early morning. Brooker notes that “it makes sense to most drivers that the early hours of the morning are a risky time.” However she also reveals that “between the hours of 2-4pm is also a lesser known risky time, this is when our body clock takes a natural dip. How many people break for a coffee at work at about 3pm?” This indicates that people are getting behind the wheel without realising that they’re not fully awake and alert. As a result, they’re increasing the chances of experiencing a lapse of concentration and having an accident.

Driving tired as risky as driving drunk?

Although there’s no conclusive evidence to prove one is more dangerous than the other, it’s clear that the risks and consequences of driving drunk and driving tired are as severe as each other.

Clinton explains that “the effects of alcohol are similar in many ways to fatigue in that it too slows reaction times.” Brooker agrees that if you get behind the wheel while you’re tired, just “like drinking and driving our reaction times increase, our concentration lapses, our attention wanders. Importantly our ability to control the car is reduced, so missing cues when driving, over and under estimating gaps in the traffic and space available all diminish.”

So, just like you’d call a taxi after an evening at the pub, next time you feel tired you should also think twice before getting behind the wheel.

1An exclusive survey of 1,094 British drivers conducted online by YouGov for Aviva in conjunction with The Telegraph on 7-9 December 2015.

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