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Millions of drivers risking lives through confusion about tired driving

13th August 2010

Drivers are being urged to wise up to the dangers of tired driving – as research out today by Brake and Direct Line1 shows the vast majority admit driving while tired, and drivers don’t know the difference between fact and fiction on tackling sleepiness at the wheel.

The campaign is being backed by Vicki Radford, whose husband Andrew was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel in 2008 (see case study below).

Brake and Direct Line’s survey found that nearly three-quarters of drivers (74%) admit driving tired in the past 12 months – with almost one in ten (9%) saying they did so at least once a week. This is a huge increase from six years ago, when 46% of drivers owned up to getting behind the wheel while tired.

An estimated one in five fatal crashes on trunk roads are caused by tired drivers2 – although the real figure could be higher, because it can be difficult to prove when a crash was caused by a driver falling asleep. They tend to be high-speed crashes, because drivers do not brake before crashing, so the risk of death or serious injury is greater3.

Despite this, most drivers simply don’t know how often they should take rest breaks to help prevent tiredness, and what to do if they get sleepy behind the wheel. The Government advises breaks every two hours on long journeys, yet Brake and Direct Line’s survey found that almost three-quarters (73%) fail to follow this advice by driving for three hours or more at a time.

If drivers do feel tired behind the wheel, they are advised to pull over somewhere safe as soon as possible, drink caffeine, and then take a short power nap4 – or find somewhere to stay overnight and get a good night’s sleep. All other methods of staying awake and alert at the wheel are unproven.

Yet of the 800 drivers surveyed a huge proportion are risking lives by driving on when tired and using unproven methods to stay awake:

  • More drivers open a window while driving (70%) to starve off sleep than take regular rest breaks on long journeys (69%).
  • More than half listen to the radio or a CD to keep them awake when driving (54%); that’s more than have a nap or drink caffeine in rest breaks (21% and 43%).
  • Nearly twice as many drivers go for a short walk during rest breaks (39%) than have a short nap (21%).
  • Nearly one in three (29%) admit splashing water on their faces when taking a rest break in the vain hope that it will wake them up.


Ellen Booth, Brake’s campaigns officer, said:

"It is terrifying how complacent drivers are about tiredness at the wheel. It only takes a couple of seconds of sleep to cause a fatal crash, yet millions of drivers are regularly getting behind the wheel while tired, and most don’t know how to deal with sleepiness on a long journey.

“We all know when we’re feeling sleepy – we know what the warning signs are. When we’re driving we must listen to these signs without delay. Thinking that we can fight off sleep, especially using unproven methods like opening the window, is a mistake that could cost your life, or someone else’s."

Andy Goldby, Director of Motor Pricing & Underwriting at Direct Line said:

"The increase in drivers admitting to driving whilst tired is a worrying trend. Tiredness and driving are a deadly combination: not only is there a risk of falling asleep at the wheel, but when we are tired our reactions and awareness of our surroundings are not what they would normally be. Drivers know when they are tired, and whilst they may think stopping for a break may increase their journey time, it’s not worth the risk to themselves, their passengers or other road users. It is better to get there late than to not arrive at all."


  • Get plenty of sleep before a journey, plan your journey to include time for adequate rest and don’t set out if you are already tired.
  • Take rest breaks at least every two hours for a minimum of fifteen minutes.
  • If you feel tired when you are driving, listen to the warning signs and stop for a break somewhere safe as soon as you can. Sleep ensues faster than you think – trying to fight off sleep by opening the window or listening to the radio puts you at risk of ‘microsleeps’, when you nod off for two to 30 seconds without remembering it. Microsleeps can be fatal: at 70mph a driver travels 200m in six seconds.
  • If you start to feel sleepy while driving:
  1. Stop for a 15 minute break somewhere safe as soon as possible.
  2. If you drink caffeine, drink two cups of coffee or a high-caffeine drink, such as an energy drink, then take a 10-15 minute rest or snooze.
  3. By the time you wake up any caffeine will have kicked in and you may feel alert enough to continue your journey. If you still feel tired, or you still have a long way to go, you should stay put and try to find somewhere to get a good night’s sleep.
  4. Remember caffeine is a temporary drug and its effects do not last long. Sleep is the only long-term cure to tiredness.



Brake is calling on the Government to:

  • Run more education campaigns warning of the dangers of driving tired, and stating what drivers can do to prevent tired driving crashes.
  • Make traffic policing a national policing priority, and ensure there are more patrols to spot and stop weaving vehicles driven by tired drivers.
  • Introduce regular testing of drivers, particularly people who drive for work, for sleep apnoea, a medical condition that makes falling asleep at the wheel much more likely.
  • Introduce better and longer safety barriers to minimise the consequences of crashes caused by tired drivers on motorway and trunk roads.
  • Conduct an audit of rest areas on motorways and trunk roads, to ensure they provide adequate provision for our road network, enabling drivers to always find somewhere to stop and rest.
  • Extend rules controlling hours that can be driven legally by large vehicle drivers to fleet drivers in vans and cars, and encourage companies to use trains more instead of cars for long distance journeys.


The consequences – case study

Andrew Radford was a respected deputy head teacher at a primary school in Shropshire. He was a kind and gentle man with a love of music.

Andrew, 33, was only two minutes away from his house, on his way home from work, when he veered across the central line into oncoming traffic, causing several cars to swerve out of his way before he crashed head-on into a Volvo. A driver behind Andrew noted that his brake lights did not come on. It was about 5.30pm on 4 December 2008. Despite having emergency surgery, Andrew died in hospital, in the early hours of Friday 5 December.

Andrew told a paramedic treating him at the scene that he fell asleep at the wheel after deciding not to take a break. This decision cost him his life.

His wife, Vicki, was left to break the news to her two young children Sam (then aged 4) and Alice (then aged 2). The pupils and staff at his school were also devastated and tributes flowed to the man they had so much respect and admiration for.

His wife Vicki said: “As a husband and father he was perfect – my best friend, soul mate and love of my life. I wish that we had known more about tired driving and taken it more seriously. Andrew was a good driver – no points, always sensible, the last person you would think this could happen to. I wish that he had stopped to rest; I would rather he came home late than not at all. If any good can come out of this, then it will be that people will hear about Andrew and think again about continuing to drive when they feel tired. The only way to stop this happening over and over is show people the consequences – it happened to us, it can happen to you.”

The coroner at Andrew’s inquest said: “The tragic death of Mr Radford is a reminder to all of us that when we do feel tired when driving, but feel we can make it to our destination, it is better to stop.”

For interviews with Brake and/or Vicki call 01484 550063 or email

1Direct Line Report on Safe Driving 2009-2011 PART TWO, Fit to drive?, Brake and Direct Line, 2010.
2Department for Transport
3Department for Transport
4Caffeine combined with a short nap effectively counteracts driver sleepiness, Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre, 1997.

About Brake

Brake is an independent national road safety charity. Brake exists to stop the 7 deaths and 71 serious injuries that happen on UK roads every day and to care for families bereaved and seriously injured in road crashes. Brake produces educational road safety literature, runs community training programmes and runs events including Road Safety Week (22 - 28 November 2010). Brake’s Fleet Safety Forum provides up-to-date fleet safety resources to fleet managers and runs a year-round programme of events. BrakeCare, Brake’s support division, cares for road crash victims through a helpline and other services.

Direct Line

Started in 1985, Direct Line became the first UK insurance company to use the telephone as its main channel of communication. It provides car, home, travel and pet insurance cover direct to customers by phone or on-line.

Direct Line general insurance policies are underwritten by U K Insurance Limited, Registered office: The Wharf, Neville Street, Leeds LS1 4AZ. Registered in England No 1179980. U K Insurance Limited is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority.

Direct Line and UK Insurance limited are both part of Direct Line Insurance Group plc. Customers can find out more about Direct Line products or get a quote by calling 0845 246 3761 or visiting