The Silent Killer on our Roads


A friend of mine was in town recently and got a nasty surprise when pulled over by police and told to take a break, or face the prospect of a ticket for negligent driving due to his level of fatigue.

You know how it is … a busy work trip and a few late nights catching up with family and old friends, followed by a weekend trip to see some sights.

Apparently, another driver was so concerned about his wayward driving they called the police, who spotted my friend in his rental car, pulled him over, and upon figuring out the cause of his erratic driving, gave him a stern lecture and warning.

Negligent driving in NSW comes with a $425 fine and 3 demerit points. Police can even choose to send drivers to court for the offence, where penalties can be even stiffer and include a criminal record.

Perhaps fair enough, too. Fatigue is the silent killer on our roads.

It is estimated that between 20% and 30% of all fatalities on our roads are caused by fatigue.

What is driver fatigue?

Driver fatigue is most commonly experienced when the driver is sleep-deprived, like my friend, or like parents of newborns and young children; shift workers too.

Statistics also show that you are four times more likely to have a fatal crash if you are driving in what’s considered your body clock’s ‘normal’ sleep hours – between 10pm and dawn.

Risks are increased where you are driving alone, or on a rural road, and almost 30% of all fatigue-related road accidents occur during holiday periods when people are on the road at odd hours, trying to ‘beat the traffic’ or driving longer distances than they otherwise would.

The thing about our modern cars is that they almost make driving ‘too simple’ … In an automatic car with cruise control, it’s just so easy to get comfortable, and that’s when fatigue can start to set in.

One of the most at-risk groups is truck drivers, who are often required to travel vast stretches of open roads, and a range of penalties apply to heavy vehicle drivers who are fatigued.

The truck transport industry is striving to encourage drivers to take regular breaks. Truckies are supposed to fill in work diaries too, which log their rest hours. Those who don’t can receive substantial fines, such as Aaron Tunnah who copped a $10,000 fine for ‘critical risk’ level fatigue.

Some believe harsh penalties are required, others view them as unfair when Truckies are placed under enormous pressure to deliver results. Irrespective of your view, the message to truck drivers is clear: break the rules and you will be heavily penalised.

Indeed, National Heavy Vehicle Laws were passed in 2014 partly in response to the number of fatigued drivers in the trucking industry.

Why not drive tired?

Tiredness can impair performance and judgement, reducing attention and resulting in slower reaction times.

A driver who has been awake for 17 hours is said to be impaired to the same level as one who has a ‘low range’ blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05.

Some car manufacturers have responded to the issues, including Mercedes Benz which introduced its Attention Assist system to monitors a driver’s breaks. Other technologies such as seatbelt sensors which detect when a driver has slumped or slipped forward, are still being developed.

The signs of fatigue

In the meantime, all drivers need to take some responsibility. Always take regular breaks, to keep fresh and alert and be aware of warning signs like:

  • drifting out of lanes,
  • unintended changes in speed,
  • drowsiness, yawning and heavy eyelids, and
  • loss of concentration.

Road Safety New South Wales has tips on how to avoid fatigue and you can also download useful interactive maps of rest areas, as well as a trip calculator to help you plan your long distance road travel. These can help you avoid committing traffic offences and endangering yourself and other road users.

Have a safe weekend!


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About Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers content team.
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