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Fitness to drive

By / 9 years ago / Features / No Comments

At-work drivers are almost 50% more at risk of accidents than other motorists, even with higher mileage taken into account. They account for a third of all collisions, or 1,000 deaths and 13,000 serious injuries each year in the UK and, according to RoSPA, many of these could be avoided by explaining the benefits of a healthier lifestyle more clearly.

We’ve looked at some of the key health areas affected by driving and how motorists can improve their mind and body, to be fitter and safer behind the wheel.


The problem of a tired mind on drivers

Symptoms: Although alcohol is commonly perceived to be the biggest cause of accidents, sleep deprivation can actually impair driving more than being over the legal blood/alcohol limit. A lack of deep sleep causes the brain to process information more slowly, delaying reaction times and reducing the driver’s ability to concentrate or make decisions. 

Effects: A recent study by Loughborough University showed fatigue was a contributory factor in 20% of fatal or serious motorway crashes. Tired drivers are also 50% more likely to be seriously injured or killed than those who are properly rested, because in many cases they don’t make an attempt to avoid the crash. Yet research by the Department for Transport showed over half of respondents had driven while they were tired, adding that the figure was limited because it only covered those who admitted to it.

Cure: Short naps of up to 15 minutes are the best way to boost alertness. Caffeinated drinks can be helpful too, but research in America has shown the effects are short-lived, with slow reaction times returning within an hour. Naps and caffeine should be seen as emergency solution, though. The best cure is to plan drivers’ duty cycles to avoid extended working hours.

Caffeine is a one-hit fix, but not a cure

Neil Greig, director of policy and research at the IAM, says: Energy drinks are good as a quick fix, but they’re no substitute for regular breaks. Having a high-caffeine drink is a one-off hit – you can’t repeat it, as this type of drink does not produce the same effect in a couple of hours’ time.’


Big meals burn energy and cause tiredness

Symptoms: During digestion, the brain diverts blood to the gut to absorb nutrients into the bloodstream, causing a drop in oxygen to the brain itself. The larger the meal, the more energy is required to digest it and the more drivers will feel drowsy as a result.

Carbohydrate-rich meals, such as chips or pasta, can also be problematic. The high glucose content of these foods causes the body to release insulin to speed up absorption into the body, but causes a rise in the levels of a chemical called tryptophan in the brain. When it reaches the brain, tryptophan is converted to melatonin, which is a hormone that promotes sleep.

Effects: The period between 2pm and 4pm is the second most common time for fatigue-related accidents, and these are often caused by the after-effects of eating a large meal.

Cure: Drivers should avoid stodgy lunchtime meals in favour of lighter snacks and salads to kerb early-afternoon drowsiness and stay hydrated to maintain concentration – the brain relies on water to function properly. Taking a break after a large meal can also reduce the risks.

Take a packed lunch rather than stock up at services

Jill Joyce, senior policy and research adviser at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), recommends taking sandwiches, bottled water and a flask of coffee or tea for long trips, avoiding the temptation to rely on whatever fat and sugar-rich snacks are available at motorway services and fuel stations en route.


A lack of physical fitness in your employees

EFFECTS: There are few studies into the effects of physical fitness on drivers’ ability to be safe on the road. However, Kevin Clinton, head of road safety at RoSPA, says there’s a proven link between obesity and sleep apnoea, a breathing disorder which can cause problems with sleeping, in turn leading to fatigue during the day. Drivers with sleeping disorders are between six and 15 times more likely to have an accident during than those without.

Long-distance drivers are also exposed to risks from deep vein thrombosis – blood clots formed during long periods of inactivity. Although usually only discussed in relation to long-haul flights, a 2002 study showed 70% of DVT-prone travellers had recently travelled long distances in a car, exposing them to the same risks.

Cure: Regular exercise will improve physical fitness, and there are established treatments in place for those suffering from sleep apnoea. Encourage regular long-distance drivers to be checked for susceptibility to DVT, and enforce frequent breaks to reduce the risk.


Stress causes bad decisions to be made

Symptoms: The feeling is caused by the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism that prepares us for physical challenges. Under pressure, this causes the brain to release adrenaline, a stimulant, which increases heart rate, tenses the muscles and changes the way we process information.

Effects: While this allows us to make decisions more quickly, which is ideal for responding to immediate threats, stress usually means they’re not considered fully, which can be dangerous when driving a car. Drivers under stress make decisions because they are thinking instinctively and short term, a sort of “tunnel vision” and not planning and assessing their actions over longer term.

Prolonged periods of stress are also very tiring for the body, and over time leads to the same slower brain functions as fatigue.

Cure: Stress is caused by not feeling in control, so preparation for every journey can help at least take that element of uncertainty out of the equation. Neil Greig says: ‘Knowing what to expect ahead in terms of delays, giving yourself plenty of time for the journey, having fuel in the car, knowing the car is in good shape mechanically and knowing your route etcetera will all help reduce worry.’

Music has also been shown to calm drivers. Softer tunes can slow brainwaves, which in turn lead to a reduction in the heightened heart rate and breathing caused by stress. 


Work is stressful, and driving doesn’t help

RoSPA says 85% of motorists find driving itself stressful, regardless of other pressures, so ensuring drivers are fully prepared, trained and relaxed for the journey is vital.


The problem of poor posture on the body

Effects: Long periods of being sat in badly adjusted seats puts stress on muscles and joints, leading to long-term neck, arm, leg and back pain.

Cure: Many companies give advice to avoid poor posture while using computers, heavy machinery or other office equipment. But it’s just as important to ensure drivers adjust their driving position appropriately too: RoSPA advises fleets to consider work vehicles in the same bracket as other heavy machinery. At the very least, a decent demo session should be undertaken, especially for long distance drivers before they commit to a car for three or four years.

Most cars now offer heavily adjustable seats, rake and reach adjustment for steering wheels and headrests which can be fixed to prevent whiplash in an accident – if they don’t, should they be on the choice list?


Can your drivers see well enough?

Symptoms: Drivers’ eyesight can deteriorate over time, and without regular eye tests this can go unnoticed. The DVLA says drivers must be able to read a new-style number plate font from 20 metres away, but in some cases drivers won’t have reassessed this more recently than their test, and complying with this doesn’t necessarily indicate adequate vision for driving.

Effects: Awareness is equally low from fleet operators. Specsavers Corporate Eyecare recently studied fleet managers from 164 companies, representing a combined 414,000 drivers, and found two-thirds didn’t know the legal requirements for vision. Only 38% of those studied said they tested drivers’ eyesight before they drove for work.

Cure: Ultimately it’s the employee’s responsibility to make sure their eyesight is up to scratch, but recent legislation such as the Corporate Manslaughter Act could change this if it’s tested in court. Encouraging regular eye tests for professional or long-distance drivers could avoid problems later down the line.


Alcohol, now, and the morning after

Effects: Even small amounts of alcohol impair concentration and judgement, and can exacerbate existing drowsiness, and 5% of all fatal crashes, 9,700 per year, are attributed to being over the legal limit.The problems are ongoing the morning after. Alcohol is difficult to metabolise, causes a reduction in deep sleep, and leads a loss of water and nutrients in the bloodstream.

Cure: The easiest solution is not to drink over lunch, or avoid driving afterwards, rather than guessing. Alcohol limits are confusing, and a recent government household study showed 77% of respondents don’t know what they are. And personal abilities to deal with alcohol vary depending on factors including body weight and age, and aren’t affected by eating a big meal – food only delays the absorption into the bloodstream, delaying the associated problems. 

RoSPA’s Kevin Clinton advises: ‘It is impossible to accurately calculate how much alcohol is in your body, and whether you are above or below the drink-drive limit. Every year, about 90,000 people are convicted of drinking and driving, and face a driving ban of at least 12 months, a large fine and possible imprisonment. Many drink drivers are caught the morning after they have been drinking.’ 


People know alcohol affects driving, but still drink

DfT research found two-thirds of drivers have driven after one or two drinks, for example over lunch, even though three-quarters believed you should not drink at all before driving.

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Alex Grant

Trained on Cardiff University’s renowned Postgraduate Diploma in Motor Magazine Journalism, Alex is an award-winning motoring journalist with ten years’ experience across B2B and consumer titles. A life-long car enthusiast with a fascination for new technology and future drivetrains, he joined Fleet World in April 2011, contributing across the magazine and website portfolio and editing the EV Fleet World Website.