What is fatigue?

In December 2023 - January 2024, Health and Safety3 MinutesBy Kaye ByrneJanuary 25, 2024

Fatigue is more than just being tired – it is a state of physical and mental exhaustion, resulting in a loss of alertness and awareness. This can be due to long working hours and lack of sleep.

Fatigue is thought to be a contributing cause in about 12% of all transport accidents. Woka Kotahi refers to it as the ‘hidden killer’, since it has numerous symptoms and causes and is unseen. Everyone experiences fatigue differently, and those who are feeling it might not even be aware of it.

Because they work in shifts, drive at night against their normal body clock, start early in the morning and are often alone at work, commercial truck drivers are particularly at risk of fatigue-related accidents.

Our body clock controls when we get tired and when we’re most awake over the day. The body clock rhythm falls and rises at various times throughout the day, and our biggest urge to sleep is frequently between 2am and 4am and between 1pm and 3pm. If you have had enough sleep, you will feel less sleepy during a body clock dip, and if you haven’t, you will feel sleepier.

Therefore, to fight fatigue, you must be on top of other areas of your health and wellbeing if you are driving through these low-alert periods. These periods are challenging on your body and might turn into fatigue if you do not take care of yourself.

Do you have fatigue?

You must stop driving immediately if you experience even one of these symptoms:

  • repeated yawning
  • trouble keeping your head up
  • drifting out of your lane
  • feeling irritable or restless
  • loss of focus
  • daydreaming
  • forgetting the previous few kilometres of driving
  • blinking more than normal
  • your eyes are going out of focus
  • poor gear changes.

Fatigue and driving can be a deadly combination. Think about all the times you’ve crossed the middle of the road, made a sharp right-hand turn, or failed to remember towns or landmarks. These are all common fatigue symptoms. If you have noticed any of these signs more than once a week, you might be experiencing fatigue and need to rest.

The only cure for fatigue is sleep

If you think you’re fatigued while driving, you’ll need to take a break as soon as possible. Temporary ways to relieve fatigue include:

  • stopping the truck as soon as it is safe to do so
  • rehydrating yourself, ideally with water or an electrolyte drink
  • taking a short nap – even 20 minutes will help you to be more alert, and
  • taking breaks and getting out of your cab; breathe in fresh air, stretch, take a short stroll.

Next month, I will address more formal ways to manage fatigue.