Revealed: How Tired Drivers Could Soon Be Targeted With New Breathalysers

You’re probably familiar with the slogan ‘Tiredness Kills’ but did you know getting behind the wheel of a car on less than five hours sleep can be equally as dangerous as doing so drunk or high?

That surprising and alarming fact is what’s prompted researchers in Australia to develop a cutting-edge fatigue test.

Yes, you read that correctly and if it’s anything like the breathalyser that preceded it, it could be about to make roads a whole lot safer.

The Dangers of Driving Tired

Driving Tired - MAT Foundry

Sleep deprivation is one of the primary causes of road accidents worldwide. Indeed 1 in 5 crashes are a result of tiredness. Remarkably, 1 in 8 motorists have admitted to drifting off while driving.

A thorn in the side of lawmakers, policing this issue isn’t exactly easy. To start with, what constitutes an acceptable amount of sleep?

Recent studies carried out by the Nature and Science of Sleep suggest five hours of shut eye presents a benchmark of sorts.

Crucially, the risk of accidents is greatly increased if drivers secure anything less than that.

Armed with this data, Monash University in Perth set about developing a new breathalyser centered around five specific biomarkers in human blood. Combined, these reveal whether somebody has been awake for 24 hours or more.

While up to 90% accurate, it’s not yet failproof.

It can’t - for example - determine exactly how much sleep someone has had. This is one of a handful of refinements earmarked for the next five years, by which time a full-scale rollout is expected Down Under.

Running concurrent to this work is a new blood test intended for hospitals. Far nearer production, this will uncover booze, drugs and sleep deprivation for anyone admitted for treatment. A potential game-changer, it’s due for release as early as 2025.

Heading up both projects is Professor Clare Anderson, who explained the rationale in a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper.

“When you look at the major killers on the road, alcohol is one of them, speeding is another, and fatigue is one of them”, she said. “But even though the solution to fatigue is quite simple, which is to get more sleep, our capacity to manage it is impaired. This is because we don't have tools to be able to monitor it like we do with alcohol.”

The hope is that is about to change, at least in Australia. But what about us poms?

Officially, Britain is no more than an onlooker at this stage.

Our own Department for Transport has confirmed sleep breathalysers are not currently under consideration, though it is keeping a close eye on developments in Oz.

Setting A Tiredness Threshold For Driving

Access to new (and reliable) technology could however hasten a law for drowsy driving, for which there is no current threshold.

This would be akin to the current blood mark used to determine intoxication. That figure has long stood at 0.08% in the UK (excluding Scotland), while less leeway is afforded in Australia (0.05%).

While that may be set at five hours sleep, further analysis will no doubt be undertaken. Not until a high (or rather low) is set in stone will prosecutions be possible.

As things stand, tired motorists can only really be sent to prison if they cause death by dangerous driving. The latter is somewhat of a broad term.

Funding tHE dEVELOPMENT OF Sleep Breathalysers

Drowsy Driving - MAT Foundry

Technology of this kind does of course come at a cost.

Back in Australia, the Office of Road Safety (their equivalent of the DfT) are footing the bill. Plans to run with portable roadside tests will not be cheap, particularly as the sensors and devices needed for them remain a work in progress. Unsurprisingly, they have invited external funding.

A grand total, along with the success of any trials, will likely impact any equivalent scheme coming to the UK.

But can the government really afford to take a backseat given the startling discovering that driving tired is akin to driving drunk?

How A Lack of Sleep Slows Driving Reactions

Back in 2017 a study by the University of Los Angeles found that exhausted neurons take longer to respond, therefore sending weaker signals to the brain. Given the alertness and split-second reactions required when driving, this is a recipe for disaster.

These findings were born from tests conducted on 12 tired epileptic patients, each of whom had electrodes implanted into their brains. These served to highlight the origin of any seizures.

The man behind the experiment, Professor Itzhak Fried, explained the impact this could have on road safety at the time.

"We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly”, he explained. "This paves the way for cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us. Inadequate sleep exerts a similar influence on our brain as drinking too much. Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifying over-tired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers."

Could tailored breathalysers be the answer?

They would surely be a step up from current measures and/or deterrents, which are few and far between.

HGV drivers are instructed to maintain logbooks which record hours of work and rest on any one trip. Commercial fleets meanwhile utilise event data recorders. These are often poured over by police in the wake of an incident.

Evidently, they’re not impactful enough.

Australia has awakened to the dangers of driving tired. Expect others to wake from their respective slumbers within the next decade.

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