December 20, 2018

Drive to Survive this Festive Season: 10 Causes of Driver Fatigue

Warning and disclaimer

This is a lighthearted reflection on a very serious topic – deaths on the road during the festive season. It’s been written from the perspective of a parochial Western Australian who supports the local football team called the Eagles who beat the Pies during the 2018 Grand Final. In my family there are three ardent Pies supporters who have broad enough shoulders to take a small insult for an important message to Christmas holidaymakers.
Other Pies supporters may find this article hazardous to their health. I suggest that if you’re not armed with a sense of humor, avoid this hazard. The disclaimer is that no offence is intended and there’s always next year’s season.

The listening tour

During 2018 I had the privilege of meeting hundreds of people through the Risk Leadership Workshops run for the Safety Institute of Australia and the Effective Risk Management Workshops run for WorkSafe Western Australia and WorkSafe Tasmania. One of the anecdotes that the audiences valued was the use of the Entropy Model to explain people-related ‘entropic risk’ as it applies to driving.

People-related entropic risk

In addition to taking a holistic approach to risk, the Entropy Model explains that people suffer from degradation. This is referred to as ‘Entropic Risk’. As people’s condition declines, this risk rises progressively affecting their productivity, the quality of their driving behaviors and their risk of accidents. If the degradation becomes severe, this entropic risk rises until an accident becomes inevitable.
This is a very important concept when it comes to driving because everyone is subject to this risk state at some time, which puts them, other road users and pedestrians in danger. This adapted version of the Entropy Model illustrates this point. I used a curved line to highlight how the entropic risk can escalate rapidly.

10 causes of driver fatigue

We tend to immediately think of driver fatigue as the source of this degradation, however, there are multiple causes. These include:
  1. Distractions such as the use of mobile phones
  2. Ill-health
  3. Aging
  4. Attitude issues such as road rage and speeding
  5. Temporary physical limitations such as a stiff neck which limits a driver’s ability to check the blind spot
  6. Change and competency gaps such as driving a different vehicle for the first time eg hire car
  7. Mistakes and misjudgments
  8. Communication breakdown including limited visual cues between drivers
  9. Unhelpful habits such as eating or texting whilst driving
  10. Drugs or alcohol consumption including prescription medications

Driver fatigue and entropic risk

All of these lead to degradation which in turn causes rising entropic risk, and as road statistics tell us, many road deaths are caused by these factors. The overall human-related risk profile can be better understood using the Bell Curve.
This is the illustration I used during the workshops that the audience enjoyed. At the lower end we have the Pies supporters (remember no offence intended!) and at the upper end we have the Eagles supporters. The majority of drivers are in the average intelligence range i.e. ‘Most of Us’.
Getting a driver’s licence requires a moderate level of intelligence and physical capability as shown by the red line, therefore, legal drivers on our roads are to the right of the red line. Can we then assume that licenced drivers (as they aren’t Pies supporters) are competent and therefore ‘safe drivers’? No. Not when we consider the impact of entropic risk.

The next illustration shows what happens to the Bell Curve because of entropic risk. Unfortunately, the curve slides to the left meaning that, at some time or other, every driver on the road becomes a Pies supporter. Yes, even Eagles fans with myself included. Being honest, we’ve all been unwell or tired or distracted or made an error of judgement whilst driving.

Road accident prevention

Equipped with this understanding, we’re better able to make informed decisions.
The first strategy is risk awareness of ourselves and self-management. This is done by assessing our condition before and during driving to consider how hazardous we are. The questions are:
  • Am I suffering from any of the issues that lead to degradation and rising entropic risk?
  • If so, should I be driving at all or should someone else take the wheel?
  • If I am OK to drive, how can I prevent degradation and this rising risk e.g. journey planning, rest breaks, managing prescription medications, considering consequences of unsafe habits and making the change?
  • What other risks are present that could lead to a degraded state e.g. driving into a setting sun, challenging road conditions, heavy traffic etc? For example, if I’m a bit tired going home from work, can I take a safer route that involves lower speed?
The second strategy is risk awareness of others and empathy. This involves recognising that all drivers, other road users and pedestrians suffer from degradation and therefore the best action is to treat others as potential hazards. The questions are:
How are other road users likely to be feeling? For instance, at the end of the working week most road users are tired and just wanting to get home. Expect more drivers to be at the lower end of the Bell Curve.
If there’s an error or near-miss, be understanding and avoid negative communications. Nobody is perfect!
If there’s a traffic jam, be patient and consider that other drivers are also frustrated. This is a collective experience, not individual.

Understand that some drivers are nervous in difficult conditions such as heavy rainfall and are more likely to make errors. Be prepared to take evasive action and drive to conditions yourself.

Food for thought

Road usage is a complex system with variable risks that relies heavily on collective risk awareness and cooperation. When we drive, we tend to see cars rather than people. This depersonalisation is part of the problem.
One of the wonderful messages of the festive season is the importance of family. If we begin the season with a personalised sense of responsibility for ourselves, our passengers and other road users, then perhaps this Christmas New Year, we can achieve no loss of lives on our roads and have tears of joy rather than tears of loss and suffering.
Wishing everyone a safe, peaceful and happy festive season,

P.S. Good luck to the Pies supporters in 2019. See you again at the Grand Final!

Tania Van der Stap is the Founder and Principal Director of ALIGN Strategic Management Services Pty Ltd established in 2002, after h
aving Productive Safety Management published internationally by Butterworth-Heinemann. The publication presents a strategic, multi-disciplinary management system for hazardous industries that ties safety and production together.
From 2002 to 2012, Tania provided HSE consulting services to Chevron’s Gorgon Project, Monadelphous, Baker Hughes, Fortescue Metals Group and Worley Parsons. Thereafter for 5 years, Tania took a HSE Manager’s role with AngloGold Ashanti Australia where she made significant improvements taking the department from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘proactive’ on the HSE journey.
In late 2016, her company was rebadged to ALIGN Risk Management specialising in HSE Consulting and Risk Leadership Programs for managers, supervisors, HSE professionals and workers. Her chapter on ‘Risk Leadership – A Multi-Disciplinary Approach’ has been accepted by the American Society of Safety Professionals and will be published in Safety Leadership and Professional Development ahead of the ASSP’s 2018 Safety Conference.

In addition to Productive Safety Management being a substantial, refereed publication, Tania’s credentials include academic qualifications in Commerce and also Public Health and Safety.

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