Tips to avoid driver fatigue on a road trip

Along with some much-needed downtime, for many, holidays and vacations also mean road trips. In our excitement to get to where we’d rather be, time behind the wheel can add up and fatigue can set in. Fatigue can lead to poor judgement, slower reaction time and impaired decision making – none of which are compatible with good driving.

Driver fatigue is a serious concern. According to the data for crashes reported by Te Manatū Waka (Ministry of Transport) for the year 2021 driver fatigue was a factor in 25 deaths and 92 serious injuries. Fatigue can affect anyone and is believed to be a contributing factor in at least 12 percent of motor vehicle crashes.

What is Driver Fatigue?

Most people think that driver fatigue means falling asleep at the wheel. However, falling asleep is an extreme form of fatigue. Fatigue is:

  • Tiredness
  • weariness or exhaustion
  • or fatigued enough for it to impair your driving

How to recognize the signs of driver fatigue

The first step is to take regular breaks. However, fatigue is something that can creep up on you especially if you have not been sleeping well for some days before you started on your journey. Following are some signs that you can be mindful of while on the road trip:

Physical signs:

  • beginning to blink often
  • you can’t stop yawning
  • having trouble keeping your head up
  • your eyes close for a moment or go out of focus

Mental signs:

  • you have wandering, disconnected thoughts
  • you find that you can’t remember driving the last few kilometres

Making small mistakes when driving:

  • you miss a gear
  • you miss a road sign or exit
  • you find you have slowed unintentionally
  • you brake too late
  • you drift over the centre line or onto the other side of the road

Tips to plan a safe road trip and avoiding driver fatigue

Here are a few tips to help you and your loved ones avoid driver fatigue during the holidays:

When planning a trip, add an hour:

In New Zealand our roads are narrow, hilly, and windy and especially over Christmas and New Year, busier than usual. Take your time and schedule breaks into your trip and enjoy the journey as well as the destination.

Stop regularly and share the driving:

Plan to stop every two hours for a break, especially if you’re not used to driving long distances. If you can, share the responsibility of driving to stay alert. Stop in a safe place when you feel tired.

Don’t drive when your body would usually be asleep:

Our circadian rhythms programme our body to sleep between 3am and 5am, so it’s not surprising that Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency notes peaks in fatigue related crashes occur between 3am and 5am. If you have a long journey, break it up and start the next day well rested.

Take a power nap — STOP if you experience any signs of fatigue:

If you’re feeling tired, pull over and have a power nap. Research suggests that the optimum length of a power nap is 15-20 mins. Any longer and you will come out of it feeling groggy.

It is not enough to take these common actions to prevent you from falling asleep because they are only effective for a short time such as drinking caffeine, getting out and stretching your legs or turning up the volume on the sound system. It is important to account for the possibility of driver fatigue before going on a road trip and take the necessary precautions.

We wish you a safe and enjoyable journey during the holidays. For more information and details on the importance of taking precautions against driver fatigue check out Driver fatigue | Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (

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