A new report estimates more than one Australian will die every day – 394 a year - from falling asleep at the wheel of a vehicle or from industrial accidents due to lack of sleep.
With four in 10 Australians not getting enough sleep, experts are saying drowsy drivers should be treated like drunks - barred from driving.
The Sleep Health Foundation Report by Deloitte Access Economic shows inadequate sleep is a major health and safety hazard that costs the country $66 billion annually, and contributes to the death of about 3,000 people a year.
Sleepy drivers are such a hazard that Deloitte economists call for drastic measures to restrict driving without adequate sleep beforehand.
"Police departments should devote as much attention to tired and fatigued drivers as they do to speeding and inebriated ones," the report states. "Just as there are rules forbidding driving at more than a certain speed or after consuming an excessive amount of alcohol, there may be a case for restrictions on driving where the driver has had less than a set minimum hours of sleep in the past 24 hours."
The report does acknowledges that there's no real method to actually police this yet.
Professor David Hillman of the Sleep Health Foundation, which commissioned the report, welcomed the recommendation.
"More than 185,000 people have died on Australian roads since the road toll began in 1925," Professor Hillman says. "When you consider that one in every five car accidents is related to fatigue that is a lot of harm caused by people not getting the sleep they need."
Many drivers don't understand that getting behind the wheel of a car when sleep deprived can be just as dangerous as driving drunk or drug affected, he says. Australian research shows drivers who have had 17 hours of sleep deprivation perform the same in the driver's seat as someone with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 per cent.
"For too many people, driving tired is a dangerously normal part of everyday life," Professor Hillman says. "This behaviour is causing crashes and costing lives. It's time we treated sleep deprivation like alcohol and regulated against it."
While the report doesn't state the minimum sleep hours that should be required in a 24-hour period, Professor Hillman advises that most adults require 7 to 8 hours sleep per night. In the future it is likely that a test will be developed that allows police to check fatigue levels like an alcohol breathalyser detects inebriation.
The report canvasses all the costs of sleep deprivation, including health conditions like heart disease, stroke, obesity and depression all strongly linked to poor sleep. Besides driving safety, it also recommends stronger policies to prevent, diagnose and treat sleep disorders like insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea known to cause daytime sleepiness.
Regulations are needed to improve rostering, lighting and other conditions for shift workers and limit late-night use of blue-light emitting devices that disturb the body clock.
A large scale public education campaign is also recommended to draw national attention to the dangers of drowsy driving.
"Just like the very successful campaign against passive smoking from cigarettes, the program needs to emphasise that this behaviour is doing deadly harm to others," Professor Hillman says.
Here's some tips from Professor Hillman:
Drowsy Driving: Signs You're in Trouble
- Eyes closing or going out of focus
- Trouble keeping the head up
- Cannot stop yawning
- Wandering thoughts, difficulty concentrating on driving
- Cannot remember recent driving
- Drifting between lanes, off the road or missing signs
- Very heavy eyelids
- Slow blinking
How to Stay Safe on the Roads
- Make sure you've had at least seven hours sleep the night before a long drive
- If you have to drive for long periods of time, try to take a short power nap after lunch
- Share the driving with someone else and help keep each other awake
- Switch drivers every two hours
- Don't drive between 1am and 6am
- Don't drive if you've been awake for more than 17 hours
- Pull over and take a short nap if you notice difficulty keeping your eyes open, or find yourself relying on loud music, energy drinks or fresh air to stay awake
Tim Olds, a professor in the School of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia says this is an interesting study, and a few caveats should be taken into consideration.
1. The report is based largely on self-report data, which have relatively poor validity. In particular, some associations between sleep and health outcomes which are evident with self-report are often not evident when sleep is objectively measured. This suggests that "poor sleep" may be a general category people use when things aren't going well.
2. Not much attention to sleep characteristics other than duration. We know that sleep quality, timing (e.g. late bedtimes), and day-to-day variability are also important.
3. We have to consider the 24-hour day. If people are sleeping less, what are they doing with the time freed up? They may, for example, be watching more TV, which is associated with poor health outcomes. Similarly, if they are sleeping excessively, what are they giving up? Physical activity?
4. There is a large focus on sleep disorders (i.e. pathologies). But the bigger question is for those people without diagnosable sleep disorders who are not getting appropriate amounts or patterns of sleep.
5. There is not much evidence that adults are sleeping less now than they did 10-50 years ago. There is, however, strong evidence that children are — they appear to have been losing about 45 seconds of sleep per day each year for the last 120 years.
6. We still are not entirely sure about optimal sleep duration for kids. The best amount appears to differ according to the outcomes (in the US, it appears to be 7.5 h for academic performance, and almost 9 h for mental health in primary school-aged kids, for example). It's probably similar for adults.