A blood test to measure whether a driver who has caused an accident was impaired by lack of sleep could be available within two years, making it easier to legislate against drowsy drivers or their employers.
Is this really a problem?
Globally, more than 1.35 million people are fatally injured in road traffic crashes, with an additional 20–50 million people sustaining non-fatal serious injuries.
Drowsiness, due to insufficient sleep or driving during the night-time hours, is a major contributing factor to motor vehicle crash risk.
In the United States, drowsiness was estimated to contribute to 21% of all fatal motor vehicle crashes and 13% of severe injury crashes. Similarly, in Australia, drowsiness is involved in an estimated 20% of all fatal crashes, and 30% of severe injury motor vehicle crashes.
Crashes caused by drowsiness are both highly identifiable and preventable. For instance, sixty-six percent of drivers report having driven while drowsy in the past 5 years, and 19% report experiencing near crashes due to drowsiness.
Younger drivers are overrepresented in drowsiness-related crashes, such that 18–24 year old drivers are 14.2 times more likely to crash during the night-time hours or during early morning driving.
This enhanced vulnerability may be due to an increase in driving exposure during these times, and/or an increased vulnerability to sleep loss compared to older drivers.
While laboratory-based studies have examined this increased vulnerability of younger individuals to sleep loss, no study has examined age-related vulnerability to drowsy driving using real, on-road driving outcomes. No data therefore exists characterising and quantifying the impairment of younger drivers relative to older drivers, when well-rested and drowsy.
Prof Clare Anderson, who is leading efforts to develop a blood-based test, said: “When you look at the major killers on the road, alcohol is one of them, speeding is another, and fatigue is one of them. But even though the solution to fatigue is quite simple, which is to get more sleep, our capacity to manage it is impaired because we don’t have tools to be able to monitor it like we do with alcohol.”
Anderson’s team has identified five biomarkers in blood that can detect whether somebody has been awake for 24 hours or more with greater than 99% accuracy.
Sonya Hurt, the chief executive of the UK Road Safety Trust, said: “Driver fatigue is a significant and serious issue. Government statistics show in 2021, 467 people were either killed or seriously injured in collisions where fatigue was noted as a contributory factor. Therefore, any work to reduce the impact of sleep deprivation is welcome as we strive to improve road safety and save lives.”
What is the government response?
The UK Department for Transport said: “Drivers have a responsibility to ensure they are awake and alert on the road and should seek rest when feeling tired. The government is not considering this type of testing, but we always note new ideas to make our roads safer.”
Drivers should, however, note that driving whilst tired may constitute driving while unfit, so even without a conclusive medical test, it is always wise to take appropriate rest breaks.
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Image credit: “Asleep at the wheel” by WarmSleepy is licensed under CC BY 2.0