Breakthrough blood test to detect driver fatigue: a game-changer for road safety?

Close up portrait sleepy young man driver yawning on the front seat of the car.

With a new blood test that will show whether a driver was impaired by lack of sleep, researchers in Australia hope to tackle the major causes of traffic accidents.

The team at Monash University in Melbourne, if successful, will provide police with a means to prosecute drivers who either cause or risk causing accidents through tiredness.

Evidence has suggested that having as little as five hours sleep has been proven to make a driver as risky as someone over the breathalyser limit for alcohol in some countries to cause an accident.

In the UK, data suggests that 20 per cent of all vehicle accidents involve tired drivers, and tiredness is a contributing factor to up to 25 per cent of accidents that cause fatalities or serious injuries.

The Australian team has so far found five chemical indicators in the bloodstream with a 97% accuracy rate that can tell them whether participants had been awake for 24 hours or more. To find out whether these markers can be used to assess how many hours of sleep a person actually gets, the researchers suggest more research is necessary.

Professor Shantha Rajaratnam, one of the research scientists, told The Guardian that although forensic tests to make determinations could be available to laboratories within two years, the prospect of equipping police with roadside test equipment would be several years off.

He said: “With the right investment to be able to scale this, I reckon that within five years we will be able to implement these biomarker-based tests – at least in safety-critical industries such as trucking, commercial aviation and mining.”

In the UK, the Department for Transports states it’s not currently considering sleep tests or a legal minimum sleep level for drivers, but confirms it has ‘noted’ the Australian research.

Drivers being fit to drive any vehicle is already a legal requirement, and road safety campaigners have welcomed the news of possible future tiredness tests.

Sonya Hurt, boss of the Road Safety Trust, said: “Driver fatigue is a significant and serious issue. Government statistics show in 2021, 467 people were either killed or seriously injured in collisions where fatigue was noted as a contributory factor. Therefore, any work to reduce the impact of sleep deprivation is welcome as we strive to improve road safety and save lives.”

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