While there wouldn't be many parents that go into parenthood not expecting to be thrust into the ‘grey zone’ of sleep deprivation, something that they may not be aware of is the effect that exhaustion can have on their cognitive ability and reflexes.
There are no laws regulating driving while tired, but statistics show that driver fatigue is one of the top three contributors to the road toll. Common belief is that this refers only to people driving long distances at night, but driving short distances can also prove dangerous, especially early morning, and late afternoon.
It was early morning when I jumped into the car with my 12-week-old daughter and 2-year-old son. I was definitely 10 kinds of exhausted after a rough night with the two, but I’d promised the great-grandparents a visit.
I didn’t get far as 100 metres from my doorstep when I ploughed into the side of another car. I simply did not see her or the stop sign. She spun a 360-degree turn into a parked car before coming to a halt, thankfully unharmed, as was the precious cargo in my vehicle.
I know it had happened because I was tired.
After studying 58 young adults at Tel Aviv University, researchers have proven broken sleep is as bad as no sleep at all. And regardless of whether your baby is newborn or older, for some people the broken sleep can continue for an eternity.
Mother of two, Sally Williams*, knew she was desperate for sleep when she jumped behind the wheel.
“My husband was away for work and I had been running on empty with two sick kids for a couple of weeks,” she says.“I made my way home from work as usual and went to pick up my daughter from daycare.”
It was when Sally did a U-turn to pull up in front of the school and she collided with an oncoming car that she discovered the true effects exhaustion can have on your ability to drive.
“The force of the accident sent my car careering into someone's brick fence. Thankfully no one was hurt and insurance covered the rest. I was shaking for a couple of weeks though, imagining if my kids had been in the car or if someone had been walking past the house at the time.
“I don't drive when tired any more, I catch public transport,” she says.
Marg Prendergast, general manager of the Centre for Road Safety, understands the daily plight of exhausted parents, because she’s been there herself.
“As a mum, I know what it’s like to feel tired,” Prendergast says. “Parents and carers just have to push through those days when sleepless nights and sick children disrupt daily routines. Sometimes it’s tiredness that you can manage. Other times, fatigue can be deadly if you are behind the wheel of a car.”
In fact, research undertaken by the centre has shown than being awake for 17 hours has a similar effect on your driving ability as a blood alcohol level of 0.05.
“As a parent and a carer, you are often told to make sure you take the time for self care,” continues Marg. “Being vigilant in gauging your tiredness is one of the most important things you can do to keep your family safe on the road. It might mean you need to change your plans, but that’s much better than risking your life or the life of your family.”
You don’t just have to guess if your level of exhaustion is a risk: a new road safety campaign targeting tiredness has been launched, including a free online test, at testyourtiredself.com.au.
Fatigue can happen on any trip, no matter how long or short or what time of day, so look out for the tired warning signs. These include:
- poor concentration
- sore or tired eyes
- slow reactions
Have you ever had an accident while tired?