Major research backs caffeine on crash risk

While no solution for properly tackling fatigue, project shows caffeine can help with alertness

March 20, 2013

Australian research into the effects of caffeinated drinks on the performance of long-distance truck drivers has been published in the British Medical Journal.

The study found roughly that, while there was no substitute for proper sleep, those consuming caffeine to stay awake and alert reduced the likelihood of crashing by 63 percent compared with those that did not.

Of those surveyed, 43 percent reported consuming substances containing caffeine - tea, coffee, caffeine tablets, or energy drinks - for the express purpose of staying awake.

Only 3 percent reported using illegal stimulants such as amphetamine (speed), 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy) and cocaine.

Researchers surveyed 530 long distance commercial vehicles drivers who were recently involved in a crash attended by police and 517 control drivers who had not had a crash while driving a commercial vehicle in the past 12 months.

Of the drivers, 99 percent were men.

"While comprehensive mandated strategies for fatigue management remain a priority, the use of caffeinated substances could be a useful adjunct strategy in the maintenance of alertness while driving," the study concludes.

Its authors add that: "Napping during breaks when tired is also strongly recommended; yet this is obviously not enforceable.

"In our study, only 70 percent of drivers reported having stopped for a nap when tired, and, although we did not probe in detail regarding impediments to nap taking, the numbers suggest that it is not a strategy considered as favourable as others for the management of fatigue.

"While it is clear that taking breaks is a vital fatigue management strategy for long distance drivers, it is possible that the different activities undertaken during a break would contribute differently to a driver’s fatigue or alertness level.

"The varying extent to which activities such as taking a nap, drinking a cup of coffee, or going for a short walk contribute to subsequent vigilance behind the wheel are not well understood and are therefore recommended for further study."

Lead author Lisa Sharwood of The George Institute and the University of Sydney says that the results should be interpreted cautiously.

"Caffeine may seem effective in enhancing alertness, but it should be considered carefully in the context of a safe and healthy fatigue management strategy; energy drinks and coffee certainly don't replace the need for sleep," Sharwood says.

"The study shows that the consumption of caffeinated substances can significantly protect against crash risk for the long distance commercial driver.

"The benefit, however, is likely to be short-lived. Having regular breaks, napping and appropriate work schedules are strongly recommended in line with national fatigue management legislation for heavy vehicle drivers."

Another finding was that having a previous crash in the past five years increased the risk of crash by 81 percent and this remained significant.

The study was conducted between 2008 and 2011 in New South Wales and Western Australia. Participants were long distance drivers whose vehicle mass was at least 12 tonnes. The study compared 530 drivers who crashed their vehicle while on a long distance trip with 517 drivers who had not had a crash in the previous 12 months (controls).

The study was a collaboration between the University of Sydney, Monash University, University of New South Wales, Curtin University, Queensland University of Technology and Police Departments in New South Wales, Western Australia and Queensland, and was funded by the Australian Research Council, the Australian Government Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, DiagnoseIT, the National Transport Commission, Queensland Transport, Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales and Main Roads Western Australia.

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