Driver Fatigue: Falling Asleep at the Wheel

On the night of May 10, 2008, Dawn Rousse Graham was driving to her mother’s house for dinner with her three children, Adrianna, 13, Stacie, 10 and 8-year-old Bryan. Meanwhile, an 18-year-old college student, who had been up for more than 24 hours studying for finals, was driving home. In an instant, the college student’s car crossed the centerline and collided with Dawn’s car, killing Dawn and two of her children instantly. Adrianna survived the crash, but her face has been left scarred. Her scars serve as a daily reminder of what happened to her siblings and her mother on that fateful night.

The cause of this tragic collision did not involve drugs or alcohol, but rather lack of sleep – the young driver fell asleep at the wheel. Driving while fatigued is comparable to driving drunk, only there is not the same social stigma attached. Like alcohol, fatigue affects our ability to drive by slowing reaction time, decreasing awareness and impairing judgment. Driving while sleep impaired is a significant issue, and is no longer tolerated. Legislation is beginning to change by handling collisions cause by a fatigued driver as seriously as alcohol-impaired crashes.

Everyone knows we need a good night’s sleep to feel sharp. Sadly the impairment caused by tiredness is understood by too few. Drowsy drivers put themselves and other road users at risk. An alarming 20 per cent of Canadians admit to falling asleep at the wheel at least once over the last year.

According to the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, fatigue is a factor in up to 21 per cent of motor vehicle collisions, resulting in about 400 deaths and 2,100 serious injuries every year. At 21 per cent, fatigue would rank as the third highest measurable cause of collisions behind alcohol impairment and speed-aggressive driving.

“Please don’t drive when over-tired. Drowsiness is an impairment.” That’s the message from the Highway Safety Roundtable. The group is dedicated to eliminating collisions caused by driver fatigue.

“An ordinary healthy person will get unmistakable warning signs,” says Randy Williams, Co-chair of the Roundtable and CEO and President of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada. “Once a driver starts yawning and fidgeting, it’s time to get off the road.”

“People need to better understand the risks associated with fatigue,” Williams says. “We don’t think drivers have got the message yet.” Fatigue impairment is a new issue that governments and police are only beginning to engage. Some provinces like Ontario and Quebec have strategies to reduce crashes caused by fatigue impairment. But there are few dollars spent. “More needs to be done,” says Cliff Mackay Roundtable Co-chair and CEO and President of the Railway Association of Canada. “We need a change in attitude towards driver fatigue. If you are fatigued, you are impaired.”

There are many factors that contribute to fatigue when driving, including not enough sleep the night before, or a constant lack of sleep, which could be caused by a sleep disorder. Also, driving for long periods at a time can cause the body to become fatigued, even if you have had plenty of sleep. The Highway Safety Roundtable is running Public Service Announcements in Ontario and working with partners across the country to spread the word, and raise awareness about drowsy driving.

Recognize the signs of fatigue:

  • loss of concentration
  • drowsiness
  • yawning
  • slow reactions
  • sore or tired eyes
  • boredom
  • irritability
  • missing road signs
  • drifting out of your lane
  • nodding off

Tips to avoid drowsy driving:

  • drive only when rested
  • keep your mind alert
  • find a safe place to stop if you feel drowsy
  • avoid sugary and fatty foods and drinks, instead drink water and eat high-protein snacks
  • drive defensively

For more information visit

Written with help from the Highway Safety Roundtable.

The members of the Highway Safety Roundtable are the Brewers of Canada, Canada Safety Council, Canadian Automobile Association, Insurance Bureau of Canada, Railway Association of Canada, and Tourism Industry Association of Canada.