Going home for Raya? Even a second of microsleep could spell disaster

Falling asleep at the wheel is a cause of many highway accidents. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Falling asleep at the wheel is a cause of many highway accidents. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, May 28 — Starting this weekend, many urban migrants will be driving back to their hometowns to celebrate Hari Raya Aidilfitri with their families.

As motorists, they need to make sure they had enough mental and physical rest, even more so for those who would be driving long distances, to avoid falling asleep at the wheel or ‘microsleep’.

The latest fatal incident linked to microsleep involved the founder of Dnars Skincare, Faziani Rohban Ahmad, 39, and her husband Ahmad Shah Rizal Ibrahim, 42, who drove the car and admitted to being sleepy when driving from their residence in Tumpat to Pattani, Thailand.

Not to be forgotten was the workers’ bus accident near KLIA in April which caused 10 deaths and 34 injuries.

Melaka Putra Specialist Hospital Nephrology and Internal Medical Consultative Expert Datuk Dr S. Ravih said microsleep occurs without warning and is among the causes of frequent mishaps on the highway.

“This is because, when the body is fatigued, the brain will ‘sleep’ for a few seconds, even though your eyes are open and your hands are holding the steering.

“Don’t force yourself to continue to drive when you are in a tired and sleepy state. Stop somewhere safe and take a nap. Even five minutes is enough, or stop every two or three hours if you are driving long distances,” he told Bernama.

Typically, the likelihood of falling prey to microsleep would be when driving long distances, plus other factors such as driving time, health and fitness conditions, shape and surface of the road and weather conditions which might cause drowsiness because at this time all visual and hearing input could not be processed by the brain.

Ravih said that among the symptoms that someone might be falling prey to microsleep was the slow response to information, empty eyes, blinking more often, excessive yawning and sudden jerks.

“Usually the individual who falls prey to microsleep feels he is still driving whilst he has actually ‘shut down’ and this may apply when the eyes are still open,” said Ravih who suggested that driving be avoided at the peak of sleepiness between 3 am and 5 am and between 2 pm and 4 pm.

Commenting further, Ravih said shift workers such as lorry and bus drivers had a higher risk of falling prey to microsleep due to changes in the sleep patterns.

“Disrupting normal sleep patterns can cause fatigue and sleepiness during the day. Those who experience it also run the risk of making wrong decisions and having problems with focusing,” he said.

In this country, mishaps involving trucks and buses often occurred especially during the early morning hours and, generally, the drivers drove fast in order to purportedly stay awake. They forced themselves for the sake of pay and to pursue ‘trips’.

Ravih described as myths which could spell disasters that the rush of adrenaline when driving fast would offset the effect of drowsiness and a driver would be more focused if they passed a winding road.

“The fresh impression is only instantaneous. The body system will ‘burn out’ and eventually it will cause a longer microsleep,” he said.

Microsleep does not only occur when driving as it may also occur when watching TV, or when in class, facing a computer for a long period of time and so on.

Meanwhile, Road Safety Specialist Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye said lorry and bus drivers, in particular, need to to give priority to the safety aspect because travel mishaps is now a major issue of occupational safety and health in the country as it is on the rise.

“Although there are quarters who question the suitability of driving a bus or lorry at night, we need to remember that their services are needed to support numerous operations and solutions. (Due to) unbalanced sleep cycles, microsleep actually can happen during the day, as shown in various studies,” he said.

In fact, employers are also urged to educate workers and drivers regarding the matter and how to maintain their vehicles so that they were always in good condition. — Bernama