Chris Stark: Falling asleep at the wheel – The dangers of driving tired

It’s Saturday morning, you’re lying on the sofa watching your favourite TV show. All of a sudden, you wake up and realise it’s three in the afternoon. At one point or another we’ve all drifted off without realising. Unfortunately, this doesn’t only happen in the safety of our own homes.

Falling asleep at the wheel is a serious issue which results in numerous road collisions in the UK each year. In fact, driver fatigue is thought to be a contributing factor in up to one in five crashes1 – particularly those which occur on monotonous routes.

In order to raise awareness around the potentially fatal consequences of falling asleep while driving, we teamed up with Channel 4 to create a short film. The film features an extremely tired Chris Stark attempting to take a ‘lucky’ passenger for a drive – only to fall asleep en route. We spoke to Dr Samantha Jamson, Staff Development Director and Deputy Director at the Institute for Transport Studies, and Richard Coteau, from road safety charity Brake, to better understand the impact fatigue has on motorists.

Sleep debt

Getting the right amount and quality of sleep is extremely important to our health and wellbeing. Even one night of poor sleep can take its toll and reduce our ability to perform daily tasks safely and effectively. Jamson tells us that:

sleep is not money. You can't save it up ahead of time and you can't borrow it. But, just as with money, you can go into debt.

In the film, Chris is jetlagged because he’s just returned from a trip to Los Angeles. Coteau comments that “when he climbs behind the wheel, he is noticeably fatigued and not in the best state of mind to be in charge of a vehicle.” However, “he unfortunately chooses to ignore all of these signs and ends up inevitably crashing the car.”

Jamson indicates that fatigue not only affects “reaction times and the quality of the decisions we make,” but also “has an effect on task motivation.” When we feel tired, our “motivation to carry out a task diminishes, the communication and interaction with the surroundings deteriorates, and one gets irritated more quickly and reacts more aggressively towards people and things.” So being tired significantly increases the likelihood of Chris causing, or being involved in, a car crash.

Coteau points out that “the passenger clearly notices that Chris looks tired, and begins to panic once he starts to swerve on the road.” Coteau continues by stating, “it’s really important that, as a passenger, if you feel that the driver is not fully awake or doesn’t look like they might have had a good night sleep that you feel confident in asking them to pull over and rest, or not make the journey at all.”


Who’s most at risk?

Jamson indicates that people who have certain jobs and are of a certain age are more at risk of falling asleep at the wheel.


Forget caffeine – All you need is sleep

From drinking coffee or energy drinks, to keeping the car cool or playing music loudly – motorists employ numerous tactics to feel less drowsy while driving.

In the film, Chris drinks an energy drink in a bid to stay awake. But Jamson points out that “drinks containing caffeine can help you feel more alert; however, the effects only last for a short time.” She also adds that “an open window or the radio has no lasting effect on a person’s ability to stay awake.”

These methods – although somewhat effective for a short period of time – are no substitute for sleep. Ultimately, as Jamson puts it, “the only cure for sleepiness is sleep.”

Getting Angry at the wheel

Read the next article in our Driven to Distraction series to find out why Ashley Roberts loses her cool at the wheel.

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Additional Sources

[1] Brake

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