In this page we will:
- Explain the importance of sober driving and how to avoid potentially dangerous situations
- Outline how to make sure you're sharp enough for the road and how to deal with fatigue
- Outline how stress can affect driving and the tips and tricks to avoid it
This is step 5 of the Brake Roadmap to safe and healthy journeys, in partnership with Direct Line and Green Flag, helping you to learn about, and make, safe and healthy journey choices.
Not a drop, not a drag
Even very small amounts of alcohol or drugs affect your driving and could cause a devastating crash. To keep yourself and others safe, never drink any alcohol or take any illegal drugs before driving: not a drop, not a drag.
Just one small drink impairs your coordination, slows reactions and distorts judgement. You may feel fine, but your driving will be affected, which can easily lead to a crash that could end or ruin your life or someone else’s. Your ability to drive safely is affected when you’re still well under the UK drink drive limit of 80mg alcohol per 100ml blood. With just 20-50mg of alcohol per 100ml blood, your risk of being in a serious crash is three times greater than when you’re sober. Learn more about drink driving here.
Cannabis affects your coordination and reactions, and makes you drowsy. Drugs like ecstasy, speed, cocaine and many legal highs can make you jumpy, paranoid, confused and overconfident. All these effects dramatically impact on your ability to drive safely. Learn more about drug driving here.
Drugs and alcohol is an especially deadly combination.
Preparing to avoid drink-driving situations
Always make sure you have a safe way to get home if you’re going out drinking, on foot if there’s a safe route, or by public transport or taxi. Planning ahead to get home safely will help you avoid getting into an awkward or risky situation, such as having to refuse a lift from a driver who has had alcohol. Leaving the decision until the pub, when you've already been drinking, is looking for trouble.
If you're getting a lift back from a night out with someone, make sure they are 100% on board with not having any alcohol at all. Always have a plan B just in case a designated driver lets you down, or if you’re not confident arrange from the outset to get a taxi or public transport instead.
You don't have to be confrontational to speak out to someone who’s thinking about drink or drug driving. You can talk to them in a friendly way, explaining why it's a bad idea to get behind the wheel. You could offer to call them a taxi, walk them to the bus stop or walk them home. If they are insistent on driving you might have to be more firm, take their keys or even call the police.
Drink driving is a serious offence with very serious consequences, which you want your friends and family to avoid. Not only could they end up losing their licence, they are putting themselves, their passengers and other road users at great risk of serious harm.
Make sure you've completely got rid of any alcohol or drugs from your system before driving. Many drink and drug drivers are caught the next day. Drinking coffee, sleeping, or having a shower don’t help you sober up, only time.
As a rough guide, it takes at least one hour for the body to process each unit of alcohol. You should count the hours from the time you finished your last drink, but over-estimate as it could take longer depending on lots of factors. If you have to drive the next morning, limit yourself to no more than one or two drinks, and bear in mind that if you have a heavy night you could be impaired all of the next day.
Look at a morning after calculator for an estimate of when you’ll be safe to drive after drinking.
If you drive, it’s probably the most complex and dangerous tasks that
you’ll do on a regular basis, so it is vital to be aware of your health and fitness to do so safely.
Your eyesight can deteriorate significantly without you realising it. That’s why it’s vital for drivers to get their eyes tested with an optician at least every two years, or straight away if you think there might be a problem. You must also notify the DVLA of any conditions that affect both eyes.
The law says you must be able to read a number plate from 20 metres to drive, so you have a responsibility to make sure this is the case. However, the ‘number plate test’ only checks your visual acuity (vision over distance), and not your visual field or contrast sensitivity – both important for safe driving – so it should never be used as a substitute for a professional test.
If you need glasses or lenses, don’t drive without them. In the UK, doing so is punishable by a fine of up to £1,000 and a driving ban. If you are prone to forget, keep a spare pair of glasses in your vehicle just in case.
Motorbike instructor Aled Wilson died in 2003 after being hit by a driver with impaired vision.
Aled, 31, was riding his motorbike in Milton Keynes when a driver collided with him. The driver had cataracts, and was not wearing glasses despite having been advised to, and had failed to see Aled. Even though Aled had been wearing all the right safety equipment, he died in the crash. Aled was a father of two and had previously worked as an armed forces driver. Almost 20 years after his death, his mother Jasmine and other family members still suffer the pain and grief of his death. Jasmine has channelled this into her efforts to make roads safer for everyone. She regularly speaks in public at community groups to raise awareness and is a prolific fundraiser for Brake. As a Welsh speaker, she is often asked to comment in Welsh media about other road safety topics and campaigns, and also takes part in interviews in English-speaking media.
It is your responsibility to notify the DVLA if you develop a condition that could impair your driving. Failure to do so can result in a fine and driving ban or prosecution if you cause a crash. If you suspect you have developed a condition, seek medical advice immediately. Check the DVLA’s guidance on health conditions and driving for advice. Brake advises that older drivers get at least annual health checks, and ask the doctor’s advice on their fitness to drive. As an alternative to driving, older people are entitled to free off-peak bus travel across the UK.
It is an offence to drive, or attempt to drive, while unfit through medication. If you are taking medication, check the label or information leaflet to see if it could affect your driving. If the label warns that your driving could be affected, or it could make you drowsy, or not to drive if you feel drowsy, err on the side of caution and don’t drive: it is impossible to accurately gauge yourself if you’re impaired. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are unsure.
Never drive if the label or a health professional recommends that you don't, or says you could be affected, or if you feel drowsy or slow.
If your medication affects your driving, stop driving, not your medication – make arrangements for alternative transport, or if you need to drive seek an alternative medication. In some cases, stopping your medication could pose additional risks, including while driving.
Driving tired is lethal. Nodding off at the wheel, even for a few seconds, can result in catastrophic crashes, because you don’t brake before impact. And you don’t have to actually fall asleep to put yourself and others at risk: tiredness increases reaction times and affects your ability to pay attention. But there are some simple steps all drivers can take to avoid fatigue.
Consider whether you need to drive. Public transport is often a better option for long journeys, and is likely to mean you arrive feeling more rested and refreshed than if you’ve been driving for hours – see step 2 of the Roadmap for more information about choosing a mode of transport.
If you have to drive, plan ahead so you are well-rested beforehand and never embark on a journey when you’re already feeling tired. If you know you have to drive the next day, especially a longer journey, make sure you get a good night’s sleep. The less sleep you get, the less chance you have of staying awake. When planning a long journey, allow time for regular breaks – at least 15 minutes at least every two hours – although you need to stop as soon as possible if you start to feel tired (see below).
If you’re driving somewhere relatively far away and coming back again, book an overnight stay in the middle if you can and ensure you’re well rested before heading home.
Avoid driving at times of day when you’re most susceptible to tiredness, like at night, in the evening after a long day, or in the mid-afternoon, when most people experience a ‘dip’.
If you drive for work
Insist on having time in your schedule for regular break periods to rest – 15 minutes every two hours is safest – and look at whether there are alternatives to driving, such as video conferencing or taking public transport to appointments.
If you drive a truck or bus, be aware of legislation covering the
hours you are allowed to drive, and make sure you take the required rest
breaks. Even if you fall behind schedule or get caught in traffic,
always take your breaks. Safety comes before deadlines. Your employer
should have a policy on driver tiredness that complies with health and
safety laws and makes clear that safety is the priority. When you’re
driving on company time, you and your employer have responsibility for
making sure you’re not endangering yourself and others.
If you feel tired
If you’re feeling tired at the wheel, you need to listen to the warning signs straight away and pull over somewhere safe as soon as you possibly can. Do not fool yourself that you can fight off sleep – it ensues much faster than you might think. Winding down the window or turning up your music does not help you to stay awake. If you ever head nod, you have already been asleep briefly, although you may not remember it, and these ‘microsleeps’ are enough to cause a devastating crash.
Hence if you feel tired while driving, it’s vital to pull up somewhere safe and have a nap. Having a caffeinated drink (an energy drink is better than coffee as it’s a more reliable source of a reasonable dose of caffeine) followed by a 15 minute nap can help to temporarily stave off tiredness, but bear in mind this is only a temporary aid.
If you are still feeling tired after your nap, or you still have a long way to go, you need to stop and get a proper night’s sleep, which is the only solution to tiredness. Whatever you do, only continue your journey when you’re feeling fully refreshed.
Sleep apnoea is a relatively common, but often undiagnosed condition that puts sufferers at great risk of tiredness crashes. Sufferers briefly stop breathing repeatedly while they are asleep. While the sleeper may not realise it, this interrupts their sleep and results in daytime sleepiness, which can result in falling asleep at the wheel. Signs of sleep apnoea include loud snoring, disturbed sleep, regularly waking up coughing, fighting for breath during sleep, and falling asleep in the daytime. The highest-risk group for sleep apnoea are overweight middle-aged men, although it can affect other groups too.
If you think there is a chance you have sleep apnoea, seek medical advice. Sleep apnoea is treatable, and if left untreated can increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke and heart attacks, as well as driver fatigue crashes. The sooner you see a doctor, the better
Stress at the wheel is a major problem for many drivers - it can affect concentration and driving behaviour and put the lives of all road users at risk - and so combatting stress while driving is essential.
If you are struggling to cope with stress, behind the wheel or in everyday life, it may be a good idea to visit your doctor for help.
If you are suffering from work-related stress you should also talk to your employer about how this could be reduced, as your employer has a duty of care to ensure your work does not harm your physical or mental health. Visit www.hse.gov.uk/stress for advice on work-related stress.
Guidelines to avoid stress when driving
- Consider alternatives to driving, which may help you to arrive feeling calmer and more refreshed, like walking, cycling or public transport.
- Try to clear your mind of personal or work problems before driving.
- Focus on the road and other road users around you. Be aware that an unexpected hazard could crop up at any moment and if you are not concentrating it could be fatal.
- Learn to accept things that bother you on the road, such as other people driving inconsiderately, and make a positive decision not to let them wind you up.
- Calm, controlled breathing helps to release muscular tension and relieve stress.
- Don’t drive if you’re tired, and take rest breaks at least every two hours for at least 15 minutes to refocus your concentration.
- Plan your route carefully and allow plenty of time for your journey – rushing will only make you more stressed.
- Ensure the driver’s seat, head restraint and steering column are correctly adjusted for you: aches and pains due to poor posture will not improve your mood.
- Drive at an appropriate speed well within the speed limit, including 20mph or below around homes, schools and shops, and avoid overtaking unless essential. Driving aggressively, speeding and overtaking are unlikely to get you there much faster, but could make you feel more tense, or even prevent you from arriving at all.
- Make sure you eat sensibly, as hunger can affect your concentration – but don’t eat at the wheel as this will distract you from driving.
A driver falling asleep at the wheel led to Mike Egan’s life changing forever.
Mike was driving to the barbers for a haircut in 2015 when he saw a car swerve in front of him and hit the pavement. He moved to avoid it but noticed that the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. She woke suddenly after hitting the kerb and swerved again before colliding head on with Mike’s car at around 40mph. The driver walked away with minor injuries, but Mike faired far worse. He suffered many broken bones, and paramedics had to get him out of his car to expedite his admission to hospital. Mike spent 72 hours in critical care and 10 nights in hospital. After being discharged he had to wear a back brace, and his injury still affects him to this day with pain and reduced mobility.