by Iris Winston

A single shoe, sole up. A battered overnight bag with clothing bursting out at all angles. A family photograph, the frame twisted and the glass smashed. The remnants of a laptop computer.

These were just a few of the items owned by the 35-year-old victim of a fatal, single-vehicle crash near Vars last year. He was on his way from Halifax to Calgary, heading for his dream job. Alone in the car, he kept driving. Some 1,500 kilometres later, he drove his car into the back of a transport truck parked on the shoulder of the highway. The car caught fire and the driver died in the flames.

Constable Eric Booth of the Ontario Provincial Police recalls that “it looked as though he had everything he owned with him. His possessions were scattered all over the road. When we traced it back, he had been driving for 13 hours straight and drove into the transport truck because he fell asleep.”

The driver crashed late at night. That, said Dr. Alison Smiley, a University of Toronto professor and fatigue expert, in a recent online interview, is a danger time.

“Between midnight and 6 a.m., you’re at highest risk. Your body’s physiology is geared for action during the day and recuperation at night… Your poorest performances are in the early morning hours.”

The other common down time is mid-afternoon. Estimates of the proportion of crashes attributable to fatigue vary widely from three per cent in the U.S., according to an American Medical Association study in 1998, to 25 per cent in Australia, according to a 1991 study in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Medicine. The Canadian numbers are at the low end of the scale. Of the 401,572 collisions listed in the Ontario Road Safety Annual Report for 1999, only 1,744 were specifically attributed to fatigue. Alcohol and drug impairments accounted for another 4,700 and inattentiveness for 21,597. The rest were ascribed to other or unknown causes. Drowsiness could have been a factor in most cases, despite not being listed as the primary reason.

While collision statistics peak at these times and there is general agreement that driver drowsiness is a major factor, the numbers may not tell the whole story, points out Constable Booth.

“Impaired drivers sometimes fall asleep,” says the police officer, who has investigated numerous such crashes in the 14 years he has worked in the Ottawa area. “The more alcohol, allergy pills or illegal drugs you consume, the more tired you get. But the cause may be reported as alcohol or drugs not as fatigue.”

He estimates that human error, including driver drowsiness, is the cause 99 per cent of the time. “It’s easy to figure when the driver has fallen asleep,” he says. “There are no brake marks because the vehicle has just drifted. Sometimes, the driver is woken by driving on to a gravel shoulder, then over-corrects and shoots across the road.”

The number of collisions related to driver drowsiness is likely to increase warns Doug Mayhew, Public Relations Manager of the Ottawa division of the Canadian Automobile Association. “We’re all sleep deprived. We treat the whole issue of being tired as part of our lifestyle.”

Dr. Robert Dales, head of respirology at the Ottawa Hospital and a certified sleep specialist, agrees, noting that “many people have insufficient sleep because of their busy lives.”

The other main cause is obstructive sleep apnea, a condition affecting four per cent of adult men and two per cent of adult women. Sufferers snore and choke during the night, interrupting their sleep frequently. They are then sleepy during the day. “The risk of a motor vehicle accident for these people is approximately four times higher than normal,” says Dr. Dales.

Insurance companies also recognize driver sleepiness as a major problem. A recent Manitoba Public Insurance study pinpoints drowsy driving as one of three major causes of collision for young male drivers in particular. (The other two are alcohol and speeding.) The Insurance Bureau of Canada notes the fatigue factor as a cause of crashes, although, says spokesman Robert Tremblay, the bureau does not keep accurate statistics, because from “a contractual point of view, it makes no difference in a fatal accident.”

“It seems that most of the people who fall asleep at the wheel die,” he says, adding that the risk factor for drowsy drivers and the other drivers they meet on the road increases because “people who are sleepy do not judge their degree of sleepiness well. Like alcohol, sleepiness clouds the judgement. And accidents caused by people falling asleep are particularly lethal because the drivers don’t take corrective measures.”

Drowsy drivers react more slowly, miss road signs and misjudge distances. They often drive aggressively. They fall asleep at the wheel.

“You can’t control falling asleep,” warns Constable Booth. “Common measures like drinking coffee, rolling down the windows or turning up the stereo don’t work. The answer is to pull over. It’s amazing what a nap can do.”

This is exactly what 75-year-old Jean Donnelly does. The Ottawa resident, a former chauffeur for the commander of her Women’s Royal Naval corps unit in World War II, has a clean driving record after 60 years behind the wheel. For the last seven, she has driven solo from Ottawa to Florida in her 1988 Cadillac Sedan de Ville.

“Any time I feel my eyelids getting heavy, I pull over and sleep,” says Ms. Donnelly. “I also watch my diet before I leave and on the journey and make sure I have plenty of sleep before I start out on a long drive.”

The word from the trucking industry is similar. Kerry Stengel, a 23-year, long-haul veteran, is now an instructor at Truck Driver Training and Placement in Ottawa. He says that “any time I was fatigued, I pulled over and rested. We let our students know that fatigue is a big thing in the industry. The best way to keep yourself on the road and out of trouble is to stop if you are tired.”

Laurie Rand, the co-owner of the Ontario School of Trucking, says that sleep adjustment is often a self-selector, as new drivers are placed in a co-op program with experienced truckers.

“We see very early on if someone cannot adjust their sleep pattern to the irregular lifestyle,” she says. “The successful ones learn to pace themselves.”

Bob Evans, Executive Director of CRASH (Canadians for Responsible and Safe Highways) paints a less rosy picture. “There have been several surveys which have demonstrated that a significant proportion of truck drivers have fallen asleep,” he says. “This is a fairly dull job and it is easy not to be sufficiently alert. And that is very worrying when you consider that a large truck can weigh up to 140,000 pounds.”

Fatigue can be a killer – for anyone behind the wheel of a moving vehicle of any size.

Signs of sleep-related crashes

  • The crash happened at night or in the middle of the afternoon.

  • Only one moving vehicle was involved.
  • It probably ran off the road.
  • There are no signs of braking or other attempts to avoid the crash.
  • The driver, likely a young male, was probably alone.

Drivers most likely to be at risk

  • Anyone who has had insufficient sleep.

  • Anyone suffering from a sleep disorder.
  • Anyone who has drunk alcohol or taken some medications (especially allergy medications) or drugs.
  • Shift workers.
  • People with more than one job, particularly if one has an unusual or changing schedule.

Driving fatigue indicators

  • Having little recollection of last few kilometres.

  • Missing road signs or turns.
  • Being unaware of obstructions or animals on the road.
  • Drifting out of your lane.
  • Having to jerk your car back on track frequently.
  • Yawning constantly.
  • Having trouble keeping your head up.
  • Having trouble focusing or keeping your eyes open.


  • Pull off the road and rest.

  • Have enough sleep before you start.
  • Avoid driving at night or mid-afternoon.
  • Be aware that you cannot stop yourself from falling asleep.

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