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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend mentioned the Road Safety Bill. He has not touched on one aspect of this serious subject: older drivers. We are all ageing, and as we age we tend to need more sleep. Some years ago, a GP in my constituency told me that he was horrified at the number of older drivers who continued to drive well after they were no longer capable of being safe behind a wheel. Does my hon. Friend think that that too needs attention? The Road Safety Bill makes some attempt to consider it, but it needs much more attention and also research. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Ben Chapman: I think I do, although I do so reluctantly, as a driver who has reached a certain age and deludes himself that he still carries the torch of youth. I am sure that it is possible to demonstrate statistically that older drivers are more vulnerable to road incidents, and I agree that the Road Safety Bill should pay more attention to that.

We need to look at the issue of "Tiredness Kills" signs, to seek effective control of what are said to be temporary motorway signs, and to consider the advisability of local authority-encouraged roadside advertising.

9.27 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr.   Stephen Ladyman): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) for welcoming me to my new portfolio; I look forward to it greatly. He will have seen in the weekend newspapers a prediction of one of the more exciting debates in which we will be involved over the next year or so, to which I also look forward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) pointed out, the Road Safety Bill will be before us in the not-too-distant future, and we shall be able to debate in detail many of the issues that we have discussed this evening.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know that he has been interested in this subject for a long time, and I expect to debate it with him on numerous future occasions. We have a good road safety record in this country. In fact, it is among the best in the
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world. The number of deaths and serious injuries continues to fall, but every road death is one too many, so the Government have set a tough target to drive it down further. We have committed ourselves to reducing the number of casualties by 40 per cent. by 2010.

As my hon. Friend said, road traffic accidents caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel are a serious problem. Our research suggests that as many as 10 per cent. of accidents on our road network are sleep-related in one way or another, and as many as 20 per cent. of accidents on motorways and similar roads occur as a result of driver sleepiness. Many are single-vehicle accidents, but they can have particularly tragic consequences. We have estimated that more than 300 fatalities a year occur because drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel.

Being new to this portfolio, I, like any new Minister, began with many intensive briefings, and I was staggered to discover how high our estimate is of the number of fatalities resulting from sleepiness. It is difficult to tell, however, whether the number of accidents resulting from driver sleepiness is rising. However, as we increasingly become a 24/7 society, more people are driving at night, when the risks are higher.

In recent years, we have acquired considerable knowledge on the subject of driver sleepiness through our road safety research programme. This has established that sleep-related crashes typically involve vehicles running off the road or into the back of another vehicle, and are worsened by the high speed of impact because the sleeping driver takes no avoiding action. Sleep-related crashes are therefore more likely to result in serious injury than the average road accident. Many of the accidents are also work-related, in so far as they involve trucks, goods vehicles and company car drivers. That is one reason why the advertising campaign and poster referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South is targeted at people who drive for a living.

The body's natural biological clock has a major influence on sleepiness. Such accidents peak in the early hours of the morning—between 2 am and 6 am—and again between 2 o'clock and 4 o'clock in the afternoon. These are times when we are naturally sleepier, due to our circadian rhythms. Sleep-related crashes are more evident among young male drivers in the early morning and among older male drivers during the mid-afternoon, as the post-lunch "dip" tends to become more apparent as we get older. Young men are, of course, more likely to be on the road during the small hours, but the effects of sleep loss and sleepiness are more profound in younger, rather than older, people. Young men are also more likely to ignore the signs of sleepiness, so they are at much greater risk of being involved in a sleep-related crash.

Our research has also looked at how drivers fall asleep at the wheel. We know that sleep does not usually occur suddenly and without warning. Signs of sleepiness such as yawning are the first indication, and drivers will reach the stage of consciously trying to stay awake by taking action such as opening the window or turning up the radio before they start to close their eyes for prolonged
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periods. Drivers should be aware of these signs, but many fail to appreciate that their driving is impaired and just how quickly they can fall asleep.

Unfortunately, sleepiness can also cause mild euphoria and increased confidence in one's driving ability. However, continuing to drive while sleepy and relying on cold air or noise to stay awake has been shown to have limited benefits—sufficient only to enable a driver to find somewhere safe to stop and take a break. Taking a short walk has also been found to have little benefit. Nor do we recommend using sleep detection devices, as drivers may be encouraged to rely on them in order to stop falling asleep, when in fact they should not be driving because they are tired. A driver should stop well before such a device is activated.

As soon as drivers start to feel sleepy, they should stop somewhere safe—not on the hard shoulder of a motorway—and have a couple of cups of coffee or other caffeinated drink. As the caffeine takes about 20 minutes to be absorbed, drivers should take this time to have a short rest. A nap of about 15 minutes, or even just relaxing and closing one's eyes while the caffeine kicks in, is effective in combating sleepiness. Across the motorway network, service areas should be available every 30 miles or so, giving drivers a chance to stop regularly. Most other roads offer a variety of opportunities for drivers to take a break.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South referred to the "Tiredness kills: take a break" signs. They are currently sited on the approaches to some motorway service areas, particularly in places where there are few other opportunities to stop. As he said, they are generally located in advance of the signs for the service areas, where drivers can stop in a secure place. As he also said, there are currently 57 such signs on motorways in England. Decisions about the provision of such signs on trunk roads and the motorway network are a matter for the Highways Agency. I will consider my hon. Friend's suggestion that there should be more of them and that they should be located differently. As I said, I am new to the portfolio and still learning what might and might not be effective. I am prepared to look at sensible suggestions such as the one that he has made. I certainly undertake to consider with the Highways Agency whether we should have more of those signs and where they should be located.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned in an intervention, the Road Safety Bill is about to be considered by the House again. It was introduced in the House of Lords on 24 May, and it will allow the Secretary of State to establish motorway rest areas to help to combat fatigue. Those rest areas will be similar in style to French "aires" and will provide an alternative to traditional motorway service areas. The plan is for an initial trial to evaluate the potential to encourage drivers on long journeys to stop to take a break, rather than to press on to their destination.

We have to ask how we can change driver behaviour. For a number of years, the Department—my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South referred to this—has run publicity campaigns to highlight the dangers of falling asleep at the wheel. However, to ensure that we had a good understanding of how the driver tiredness messages should be developed, towards the end of last
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year, the Department commissioned some qualitative research and found that drivers believed a good journey was one that could be made without stopping.

For many, the solution when starting to feel sleepy was to wind down the window and turn up the radio. Refuelling the car or stopping to buy food or to go to the toilet was seen as taking a break. Some male drivers felt that the advice to take a nap was unrealistic. We therefore decided to develop new messages as part of an integrated campaign that featured new radio advertisements, new publicity materials such as posters and leaflets, and partnership advertising. The new campaign was launched this Easter. It targeted young male drivers, who are more likely to fall asleep at the wheel; leisure drivers, who may drive further distances at holiday times than they are used to; and those driving for work, in view of the high number of fatigue-related crashes involving someone who was at work at the time.

For the male 18 to 30 age group, the radio advertisement sets out the reality of a crash when a sleeping driver has failed to brake. It was run between midnight and 6 am as that is the high-risk period. The fact that my hon. Friend has not heard the advert too frequently probably indicates that, usually, he is not driving between midnight and 6 am and that he is not listening to the same radio stations as 18 to 30-year-olds. The advertisement aimed at leisure drivers highlights how the monotony of motorway driving can send them to sleep and reminds them to take a break. We are also continuing to run the micro-sleep meeting advert targeting at-work drivers during the afternoon, when the body clock is in a natural trough.

We spent more than £350,000 on the Easter campaign and I am pleased to report that we found that 51 per cent. of all drivers understood the main message to take a break while driving. That is up from the Easter campaign two years ago, when 19 per cent. of drivers recognised the message. We have earmarked some £600,000 for the driver tiredness campaign during 2005–06.

My hon. Friend agreed that we had dedicated resources to that message. He asked us to look at dedicating more resources to see how effective it was. I assure him that we will look to see how effective the campaign is. If necessary, we will look again at how resources are targeted.

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