"Being tired can be as bad as being drunk, in terms of its effect upon performance," says safety expert, Dr Ann Williamson, who led the study by the University of NSW Injury Risk Management Research Centre.
"If you get up at 6 a.m. and attempt to drive a vehicle after midnight your performance will be as bad as if you had a 0.05 blood alcohol reading. It's a claim that might surprise people but our research and at least three other studies have reached the same conclusion." The study revealed that three factors are associated with fatigue-related fatalities on country roads: time of day, how long a person had been awake, and recent sleep history. Driving between midnight and 6 a.m. is the most dangerous time to be on the road because the circadian rhythms that control our body clock encourage us to sleep, says Dr Williamson.
"Any truck driver will tell you that the hours just before dawn are when they really fight to stay awake. Sleep deprivation is another risk factor for fatigue related fatalities. If you've had five or less hours sleep for several nights running you're at risk on the road."
Analysis of NSW traffic accident data shows that almost two-thirds of fatal crashes (62 percent) occur on country roads while country NSW has only one-third of the NSW population. Most of those killed on country roads are country residents. It also confirmed that several occupational groups are at higher risk for fatigue-related road crashes on rural roads -- truck drivers, tradespeople and agricultural, forestry and fisheries workers.
"Anyone who does long working hours and has little sleep to compensate will be at higher risk of fatigue problems while driving. It's not uncommon, for example, for resident medical officers to work several long consecutive shifts in country hospitals and then get into a car and crash on the way home, especially in the early hours of the morning.
"There might be a preventive role for smart technologies that alert drivers if their driving performance starts to deteriorate or if they're starting to fall asleep at the wheel but we really need to build people's awareness about the risks of fatigue-related road crashes.”
The Country Road Safety Summit runs from 27 to 28 in Port Macquarie, NSW. Organised by the Roads and Traffic Authority and the Motor Accident Authority, the Summit was a recommendation from the NSW Premier's Summit on Alcohol Abuse held in August 2003.