x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

On the long road where tiredness is a killer

Motorists who nod off are thought by experts to be behind many of the accidents that are making the UAE's roads so dangerous.

For the police officers who have to deal with the aftermath, it is all too common an occurrence. They are called to accidents on the E11, the main road through Al Gharbia, and when they start asking what happened, it becomes apparent - the driver had fallen asleep.

That is, if the driver is alive to tell the tale. With seemingly endless kilometres of desert terrain, the road is a prime spot for accidents caused by driver fatigue. Officers often found that a vehicle had left the road or slammed into the back of another - two signs that the driver had dozed off, said Major Ahmed al Shamsi, director of the region's traffic police department. "We have seen too many cases like this," he said. "We ask them to tell us about the accident. They say, 'I do not remember'. They don't remember because they were asleep."

The 260km stretch from Al Gharbia to the Saudi border cuts through a monotonous landscape. But some lorry drivers travelled the full distance without a break, being more concerned with delivering their goods than resting, said Major al Shamsi. Motorists returning from holiday sometimes did not get enough sleep the night before. In the first half of this year, police recorded 54 accidents in which vehicles had veered off the road. Major al Shamsi said many of these incidents were due to drivers falling asleep, and that deaths and serious injuries had resulted.

Zaheer Fadhel Mahmoud, 25, a lorry driver from Syria, travels between Kuwait and Dubai, via Al Gharbia, to pick up goods, sometimes driving 13 hours a day. Tiredness set in often, he said, but when it did, he pulled over to rest. It is understood that there is no federal law in the UAE regulating the number of hours that truckers can drive. Since 2006, drivers hauling 3.5 tonnes through European Union countries must rest for 45 minutes every four and a half hours and cannot drive for more than nine hours per day or 56 hours per week.

A report in 2004 by the World Health Organisation said fatigue was one of the major causes of road accidents. In the UK, researchers at Loughborough University have estimated tiredness is a factor in 20 per cent of all motorway accidents. Professor Andrew Parkes, the chief scientist at Britain's Transport Research Laboratory, said if a driver had three hours of his normal sleep pattern taken away, the impairment would be similar to that of being around the UK's drink-driving limit.

He said: "We have started to become interested in 'sleep hygiene' factors ? the factors having to do with the driver showing up to work in a fit state." These include professional drivers getting proper sleep out of work and eating well. In March, Dr Sean Petherbridge, a family specialist in medicine at Infinity Clinic in Dubai, called for lorry drivers to be screened for diabetes, saying that high blood pressure led to drowsiness and dehydration, which affected concentration.

Tom Thomas, general manager of the haulage company ADSO, said drivers avoided taking breaks in the hope of maximising their earnings. Dr Ahmed Mubarak, head of the emergency department at Sheikh Zayed Military Hospital in Abu Dhabi, has treated the victims of fatigue-related accidents. "In one case, a man was driving when he was really sick," said Dr Mubarak. "He had diabetes, hypertension and he was exhausting himself while driving. He hit a kerb. His heart stopped, but we were able to revive him."

Dr Mubarak pointed to the dangers of micro-sleep, in which a driver nods off for a second: enough for a vehicle that is going fast to travel more than 100 metres. He urged drivers to recognise the signs early - yawning, loss of concentration, drowsiness and over-steering. The problem of tired drivers is not limited to the Western Region and lorry drivers. Mariya Arif, a 21-year-old university student, said she was often drowsy when setting off along Emirates Road in Dubai towards Sharjah at 6am. Sometimes she only realised she had been drifting off when a brake light ahead caught her attention.

"In the morning, you're sleepy. You don't want to drive," she said. "Then when you're in traffic, you don't know when to hit the brake until the car in front of you hits it." Amma al Haddad, 19, believes that tiredness was behind her crashing her sister's Lexus. The American University of Sharjah student, who had been receiving medical treatment for insomnia, said she was parking when she pressed the accelerator instead of the brake.

"I missed the next car by a few inches and hit a pole," she said. * The National