Driving at night. Some of us love an atmospheric journey through a neon-lit world of darkness. Others avoid it at all costs. Perhaps it’s an essential part of the job. Whatever you feel about taking the wheel after sunset, personal safety and the safety of others should be upmost in your mind.
We humans are daylight creatures by nature, which means that darkness has a naturally soporific effect on us. Even if you are used to working nocturnally, the body’s biological clock means there is a natural tendency to fall asleep at night more than during the day.
In my previous role as head of Volvo Trucks Accident Research Team, we investigated many road incidents where drowsiness was suspected to be the cause. It is a suspicion that is in most cases difficult to confirm, since it can’t be measured like for example when alcohol is involved. Therefore, the frequency of accidents caused by drowsiness or fatigue can’t easily be confirmed from statistics in an accurate way. And statistics show that nearly half of all traffic fatalities occur in the dark, despite only a quarter of journeys being undertaken in darkness.
Drowsiness is not the only major risk factor when driving at night. Poor visibility affects depth perception, colour recognition and peripheral vision. This can lead to hazards such as pedestrians or wild animals appearing before us much more suddenly than they would in daylight hours. Therefore, you should never drive at a speed at which you would be unable to stop instantly if required.
Also, high intensity headlights are a more common sight on today’s roads. These often require your eyes to adjust faster than normally and run the risk of temporarily dazzling you. I daresay you are familiar with the immediate aftermath of an encounter with full-beam headlamps when driving. You try to maintain focus on the road ahead, but it’s not easy to readjust your eyes in the seconds that follow. Flash blindness like this is at best irritating and at worst downright dangerous.
The long-haul business often requires undertaking long journeys in the hours of darkness. Of course, there is legislation in place in many parts of the world that requires heavy truck drivers to take specific breaks from driving in order to rest. However, the pressure of delivering on time can often mean that drivers push on longer than they might feel is wise. It is worth remembering that driving tired is just as dangerous as driving drunk, and has similar effects on our bodies in terms of our reaction times, slowing them dramatically. Our judgement of speed and distance can also be drastically affected by tiredness.
And if drivers fall asleep at the wheel - even if it’s just nodding off for very short time - the consequences can of course be disastrous, as the truck will cover a long distance in that short time without the driver being able to react.
It is of course true that everyone is affected a little bit differently when driving in darkness. It therefore pays to be extra alert when on the road at night. By resting sufficiently and staying sharp and focused, you will travel and arrive safely at your destination before or after sunrise.
Anna Wrige Berling is Traffic and Product Safety Director for Volvo Trucks. Anna develops and maintains the vision, the strategy and the guidelines connected to safety as a core value for Volvo Trucks. She provides internal and external shareholders with expert guidance and is a spokesperson for our industry. Anna joined the Volvo Group in 2000 and has more than 15 years of experience working with traffic and vehicle safety. During 2008-2012 she headed the Volvo Trucks’ Accident Research Team.