Yawning drivers urged to power nap

Power naps shouldn't be any longer than 15 minutes

Driving while tired is as dangerous as drink-driving, campaign organisers said on Thursday, ahead of the first “turbo siesta” day in Switzerland on March 14.

This content was published on March 11, 2011 - 08:25

Up to 20 per cent of accidents are believed to be caused by drivers drifting off while at the wheel, according to the Swiss Council for Accident Prevention.

The Council has teamed up with motoring and road safety organisations for a three-year campaign to make people think twice about driving when tired. To launch the campaign a national day of turbo siestas has been declared, with drivers urged to powernap for 15 minutes.

“Tiredness is not an easy subject to tackle as everyone knows it’s dangerous to drive while tired, but it’s not always clear at what degree of fatigue we shouldn’t take the wheel,” Magali Dubois, spokeswoman for the Council, told  

 “We’ve launched this campaign because it’s a priority that hasn’t been addressed yet. We’ve talked about alcohol and other issues, but not about fatigue.”

In a media blitz during the campaign’s first year, comical television advertisements are being rolled out showing a driver napping in unusual places – in the middle of a football pitch or a skate park. Later on, businesses with staff working irregular hours will be targeted, as well as young people and the elderly.

Tiredness is dangerous at different times of day, depending on people’s ages. Most accidents during the weekend or at night involve drivers under the age of 40, whereas for people aged over 40 the afternoons are more problematic.

But the warning signs are the same for all: sore eyes, heavy eyelids, constant yawning, blurred vision, shaking, body jolts.

Listen to the body

“The idea of this first year is to say that tiredness is always stronger than us. We need to listen to our body and avoid driving when we are too tired,” Dubois said.

“Either take public transport if possible, or have a siesta, as we suggest, as that is the only thing that works. We want to stress that everyone needs to take responsibility in deciding whether to drive or not when tired.”

According to police reports, five per cent of serious accidents in Switzerland are due to tiredness, but the real figure is believed to be much more widespread. Internationally, such incidents account for ten to 20 per cent.

“Because obviously people who’ve had an accident wouldn’t tell police that they fell asleep,” noted Dubois.

A 35-year-old journalist, who prefers not to be named, admitted to she had fallen asleep at the wheel aged 19, and only woke up as her car drifted off the road, bursting a tyre.

“I was working the nightshift, covering the police and fire beat, ironically. I was lucky another car wasn’t coming in the other direction – it could have been much worse.”

15 minutes

The campaign is urging drivers only to take 15 minute naps; any more and people risk falling into a deep sleep. Dubois said 15 minutes had been medically proven to be long enough to allow the body to rest and come up with the energy needed to continue on a drive.

Other popular ways of staying awake – driving with the windows wide open, listening to loud music, singing – don’t work, the campaign says. Only caffeine (around two cups of coffee) is a good substitute.

Johannes Mathis of the Swiss Society of Sleep Research noted that fresh air and listening to music could help, but only for very short periods of around 15 minutes of driving.

“After that these measures produce a dangerous situation, because the driver still believes they are working. Objective measures however show that performance [reaction time] gets rapidly worse,” he told

“In contrast, the only measures that work for at least one hour are sleep or coffee.”

Mathis, who also served as an advisor to campaign, said the overall hope was that driving habits would change. Other long-running campaigns about alcohol have shown that they eventually have an effect, he said.

“It’s worth doing. There’s no doubt that this is a big problem,” he said, adding that there was also a hope in the near future that there would be ways of measuring sleepiness among drivers by evaluating the movements of a car before a crash – something that could also act as a deterrent for drivers.

It’s against the law to drive while “excessively tired” but enforcing this is difficult, so the campaign hopes to appeal to people’s better judgment.

“We are appealing for everyone to be more conscientious about what they are doing when taking to the wheel, to be aware that we put ourselves, and potentially others, in danger,” added Dubois.

Turbo siestas – why?

The main causes of driving fatigue include a bad night’s sleep, driving at a time one would normally be asleep and irregular working hours.

Driving when tired impairs judgment of speed, lowers concentration and slows reactions (the same as when one has been drinking alcohol). In the worst cases, the driver dozes off.

Such accidents happen everywhere from motorways to small roads.

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Playing it safe

Get enough sleep. Only drive after enough rest and in good health.

If you know you’re going to have to drive late, ask someone else to drive or opt for a taxi, public transport or sleep before setting off. Avoid driving at night.

If you are feeling tired, pull off the road and have a 15 minute powernap. Don’t sleep more than 30 minutes as it will be difficult to be alert afterwards.

Drink two cups of coffee as a short-term measure. (Other popular ways such as opening the window or listening to loud music have practically no effect.)

Avoid alcohol as it creates fatigue. Don’t drink more than one glass before driving, or avoid it altogether. Taking medicine can also affect your driving ability, particularly if you drink at the same time.

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