Sleepless at the Wheel

Few things are as healthy as a good dose of sleep – except when we’re driving. Then, nodding off becomes a lethal danger, and instantaneously. Emma Latham Jones sat down with road safety expert Veronique Feypell on World Sleep Day 2020 to talk about driver fatigue and why it is underestimated.

ELJ: What exactly is “driver fatigue”?

VF: There are two main types of fatigue from a road safety perspective. For one thing, it is the result of a lack of sleep. Simply put, drivers who are tired because they either haven’t slept enough or haven’t slept well are at risk of fatigue. The second type of fatigue is as a direct result of the task of driving. Perhaps the driver has been driving too long without taking a break. Perhaps they have had a long work day and is already tired when getting in the car. For truck drivers, this second type of fatigue could result from the waiting time during the loading and unloading. These two kinds of fatigue have different causes, but both have same negative effect on the ability to drive a car safely.

ELJ: How does that negative effect manifest itself?

In a number of ways. Loss of vigilance is one. Drivers suffering from fatigue may misperceive the road environment. They may not notice important road signs and warnings; or they may not register the complexity of a traffic situation at an intersection. Fatigue makes it more likely that the driver will overlook other road users, as it negatively affects vision. Tired drivers are much less likely to spot a cyclist in their peripheral vision, or a pedestrian coming out into the road. And since fatigue also reduces reaction time, the result can be fatal. In the extreme case, drivers may feel asleep and completely lose the control of their vehicles.

ELJ: Who is most likely to get drowsy when driving and should take particular care?

One might think that older drivers are particularly susceptible to concentration loss. But in fact young drivers are also very much at risk from fatigue. They have less experience on the road, so even slight fatigue may affect their driving performance. Certain medications can contribute to drowsiness. Also, those driving long distances on motorways are more at risk to fall asleep at the wheel. Fatigue is a main source of fatal crashes on motorways. Driving there can be pretty monotonous, which contributes to the fatigue.

ELJ: How big of a problem is driver fatigue? What do the statistics tell us?

VF: We don’t have a lot of statistics, unfortunately, and the ones we have are not very accurate. If one follows the police statistics, one or two percent of fatal crashes are due to fatigue. But a crash usually involves multiple factors, so the link to fatigue is often not obvious. It’s very difficult for the police officer at the scene to pick up all of this. Hence there is probably significant under-reporting. In-depth investigations put the share of crashes in which fatigue played a role at up to 10 percent.

ELJ: Are there attempts to measure how many drivers experience drowsiness, without there necessarily being a crash?

Some such studies exist, but far too few because it’s not easy. You can measure seat belt use by simply about counting who wears them and who doesn’t. But you can’t sit on the roadside and reliably count who is falling asleep at the wheel. Most studies rely on drivers to report their experience. In the United States, a survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that 60% of adult drivers had experienced fatigue while driving at least once per year. But there have also been some studies with monitoring equipment in cars to evaluate drowsiness. They use cameras that detect how often the driver blinks and also register other movements that are indications of fatigue.

ELJ: Couldn’t such technology also be used to warn drivers when they’re about to fall asleep?

VF: Absolutely, that is something researchers and the car industry are working on. It won’t be very long until new cars will be equipped with sensors that can detect drowsy drivers and then triggers a loud “wake up” message. This sort of driving assistance system might play an important role in enhancing road safety. But then there are also very effective low-tech means. On motorways, rumble strips are very good at waking up drowsy drivers when they drift off their lane.

ELJ: What should drivers do who don’t have hi-tech helpers?

VF: Nobody should take the risk of relying on sensors to keep them awake. Stop for a break when you notice you are getting tired. It’s okay to take a 15-minute nap in your car at a petrol station or on a parking area on the roadside. Many countries recommend a break from driving is recommended every two hours. Freight managers also should be encouraged to provide proper information about the risk of fatigue and how to prevent it to their drivers. And freight companies must of course respect legislation on driving time. A cup of strong coffee make help for a short time, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that it will get you home safely if you have a long drive– it won’t. What you need is enough sleep.

ELJ: Thank you so much for your time on World Sleep Day, Veronique.

Veronique Feypell manages the road safety work of the International Transport Forum. She is currently working on, among other things, on the creation of regional road observatories for Africa and the Asia-Pacific. These will help countries in those regions to collect better crash data and use them to inform more effective road safety measures.

Emma Latham Jones is a Young Associate at the International Transport Forum.

Road safety will also be on the agenda at the International Transport Forum’s 2020 Summit on “Transport Innovation for Sustainable Mobility”, inter alia in a session on Road Safety and Security in The Age of New Mobility.

“Gender is One of the Most Robust Determinants of Transport Choice”

What has gender got to do with transport? A lot, but few people know it. That needs to change, was the message from a consultation on gender and transport organised by the ITF with 34 transport stakeholders.

Mary Crass at ITF Summit 2019

Mary Crass, the ITF’s Head of Institutional Relations and Summit sat down with Emma Latham Jones to discuss female representation in the transport industry, women’s personal safety and how gender influences travel behaviour.

ELJ: Is it still necessary to focus on women in transport in 2020?

MC: Without a doubt! Women represent the largest share of public transport users around the world. In France, for instance, two-thirds of passengers on public transport networks are women. A study that we’ve recently done here at the ITF reveals that gender is often a more robust determinant of modal choice than age or income. So it’s really significant, especially since transport services and policies are still not gender neutral.

ELJ: If gender is so important to journey decisions, why is it so often overlooked?

MC: Data collection and analysis very often do not include gender to reflect differences in travel behavior. This means that transport policy is potentially not accounting for 50% of travelers’ needs. It’s a huge missed opportunity for transport authorities, planners and operators to ignore the specific trip patterns and access needs of women— a market that represents over half of public transport clients. Clearly, gender needs to be better taken into transport policy consideration.

ELJ: Are travel policies not gender neutral because women are not well represented in the transport sector?

MC: I think this certainly plays a part. The transport labour force remains heavily male-dominated. Only 22% of transport employees in the European Union are female. In the Asia-Pacific region, women are typically found in fewer than 20% of transport jobs. There are relatively few women working as operators, drivers, engineers, and similar positions. A survey of ITF member countries also found that only 13 out of 60 member countries currently have female transport ministers. As a result, women’s voices in decision-making are under-represented across all levels, which leads to a lack of incentive for transport services to respond to the particular needs of women as users. It also contributes to the fact that gender considerations are largely ignored in transport data collection and analysis, and therefore in policy decisions. We need to change this to ensure that the voice of women is heard in public transport decisions.

ELJ: Does this mean female representation in the transport industry is a priority of the ITF?

MC: Absolutely – the lTF is working alongside its members and stakeholder organisations to better understand the questions related to gender in transport, both on a travel-behaviour level and in terms of representation in the sector. Our consultation on women in transport just now in January brought together 34 stakeholders to explore these questions. We hold this consultation annually, and our understanding of the importance of a gender-diverse transport sector is advancing year to year. We greatly appreciate the insights of our partners and we feed the findings to our summit in Leipzig in May. There we’ll examine how innovation in the sector is impacting women, in terms of their travel and mobility choices.

ELJ: How else does the ITF support women in transport?

MC: We’re looking at gender in transport within the context of inclusive transport and we examine the question from three different angles: travel behavior, safety and security, and representation in the sector. We look at how the gender balance in the industry can be more effectively pursued by understanding the distinctions between how men and women navigate the transport system as users – and how they evolve as workers and professionals serving transport operations and activities.

ELJ: I am a young woman, and sometimes on public transport I find myself concerned about my personal safety. How do issues like these influence women’s decisions and their lives more broadly?

MC: Women are more likely than men to be dependent on public transport. Yet they face personal security challenges that hinder and often deter them from using transit systems. As a result, women’s access to jobs, services and amenities is severely compromised. A Reuters survey of 16 major cities worldwide found that women in Latin American cities faced the highest rates of harassment, with about 60% of women reporting physical harassment on public transit systems. Even under conditions where infrastructure is considered to be safe, women’s perception of that security can influence their willingness to use collective means of transport. Simple, low-hanging fruit can go a long way to improve perceptions of security – including better lighting, clear signage and presence of security personnel. Our work has shown that if women do not feel safe and secure using transport, they will switch to taxis or private vehicles faster than men. So ignoring gender impacts of transport infrastructure and operations is a disservice to the sustainability agenda as well.

ELJ: February 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. How can we increase the number of women in transport related science, technology and engineering roles?

MC: If we look at this question from the perspective of education and training, then I’d say employment in the transport sector needs to have greater visibility in higher education. Too often, opportunities in the transport sector for women are not properly understood.

ELJ: What about the more practical aspect of being a woman in a male-dominated sector?

MC: For operational jobs in the sector – driving vehicles for instance – the conditions of employment need to ensure that the needs of both genders are met. Too often required clothing, equipment and even facilities are not appropriate for women in the sector. This can be rectified by ensuring that upstream purchasing and planning of the worker environment take into consideration the presence of women in these jobs.

Thank you so much for your time, Mary.

Mary Crass is Head of Institutional Relations and Summit for the International Transport Forum. She is responsible for the ITF’s relations with member countries, international organisations and associations, and the Annual Summit of the International Transport Forum. The next Summit will be held from 27-29 May 2020 on the topic of “Transport Innovation for Sustainable Development” in Leipzig, Germany.