After a serious road accident, police forensic teams try to piece together what happened in the moments before the collision. It might be suspected one driver simply wasn't paying attention or had nodded off at the wheel, but without witnesses, this can be hard to prove definitively – until now.
A team of academics from the University of Surrey’s Sleep Research Centre have developed a blood test that can help police to work out if a driver was drowsy before a road traffic accident.
Research indicates driving while tired can be as dangerous as drink driving; drivers who fall asleep at the wheel often do not brake to avoid a collision, making high-speed impacts more likely.
Official figures cited by road safety charity Brake indicate driving tired contributes to 4% of road crashes and 2% of fatalities, but as tiredness is hard to prove, this may be an underestimate. Research commissioned by the Department for Transport suggests one in six motorway crashes resulting in death and injury on motorways and A roads are related to fatigue.
Peak times for fatigue-related crashes are 2am to 6am and 2pm to 4pm, when we naturally tend to feel more sleepy. A driver on the road at 6am is 20 times more likely to fall asleep at the wheel than the same driver at 10am.
The law's clear on driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but what about sleep deprivation? It's not against the law to get behind the wheel without enough sleep, but tired drivers can be charged with crimes such as death by dangerous driving or death by careless driving, with a penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment.
The police can't currently carry out a test to show how tired a driver is, but in court evidence may be presented about how much sleep the person had, building up a picture of whether it was responsible for them to drive.
To develop the test, scientists studied 36 people who went without a night's sleep, staying awake for a total of around 40 hours. Blood samples were taken from the participants regularly and studied to discover patterns. A machine-learning algorithm identified a subset of 68 genes, enabling the researchers to identify with 92% accuracy whether a sample was from someone well-rested or fatigued.
The blood test will look for these crucial biomarkers that indicate a lack of sleep. The initial survey looked at acute sleep loss, but with further research the scientists hope to be able to identify indicators an individual has chronic insufficient sleep, for example someone who has only slept for four hours.
It's possible in years to come, police will be able to administer a sleep deprivation test on the roadside, just as they can test for drugs and alcohol now. Whatever happens, the key fact remains: if you haven't had enough sleep, it's not safe to drive so opt for public transport or a taxi instead.
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