Tiny nap, big danger: Understanding microsleeps

While we’re all familiar with the phrase “falling asleep at the wheel”, the image of a driver slumped over the steering wheel with his eyes shut as his vehicle veers off the road doesn’t tell the full story of fatigue-related accidents.

In reality, that driver who’s about to crash may be sitting up with his eyes wide open. While he continues to drive, part of his exhausted brain has switched off. He hasn’t “fallen asleep” in the conventional sense; he’s having a microsleep.

What is a microsleep, exactly?

A microsleep is an unintended loss of attention that can happen when you’re fatigued and doing something monotonous, like driving a car or sitting at a computer. It’s also (as the name suggests) short – lasting from less than a second to 30 seconds.

During a microsleep, parts of the brain go offline while other parts keep working – so you can essentially be asleep while you’re still sitting upright with your eyes open. Creepy, right? When you’re driving, a microsleep might mean you don’t notice a red light, or another vehicle in your path, or a curve in the road ahead.

How dangerous are they?

We all know driver fatigue is a factor in many road accidents. But how significant is the problem?

Pretty significant, according to the Victorian Government’s Transport Accident Commission (TAC), which notes that:

● Drowsy driving is suspected to be a primary cause in more than 20 percent of road fatalities. That’s fatalities, not  just accidents.
● The more severe the crash, the more likely it is that fatigue was a factor.
● Fatigue is thought to play a part in nearly a third of all single-vehicle crashes in rural areas.

America’s AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety studied drivers who’d fallen asleep and crashed. It found, alarmingly, that nearly half of them reported feeling only “slightly drowsy” or “not at all drowsy” before the accident, demonstrating that when we’re tired, we don’t realise how tired we are. Typically, most people need to be asleep for two to four minutes before they acknowledge they’ve been asleep. When we consider this in the context of driving, we see just how dangerous a microsleep of just a few seconds can be.

The risks of microsleeps, of course, aren’t limited to the roads – there are people all over the world, every day, operating industrial machinery, flying planes, overseeing work and using equipment, who pose a risk to themselves and others if they lose control due to a microsleep.

Famous examples of fatigue-related accidents include the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and the Challenger space shuttle explosion (both in 1986), as well as multiple airline crashes.

How to avoid microsleeps

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about fatigue is your body can’t actually fight the need to sleep. When you’re tired, chemicals build up in your brain that will cause you to fall asleep – no one is immune to the risk of microsleeps.

There are ways to guard against them though: 

● Get a good night’s sleep before heading off on a long trip.
● Don’t travel for more than eight to ten hours a day.
● Take regular breaks every couple of hours at least.
● Avoid travelling at times when you’d usually be sleeping.
● Take a powernap if you start getting drowsy.

In commercial and industrial settings, preventative fatigue technology is delivering dramatic results by tracking driver alertness in real time. At SmartCap, we’re working with industry – from mining to road transport – to monitor drivers and operators and make fatigue incidents a thing of the past.

Why count microsleeps when you can prevent them?