Medical Fitness for Driving
Being Fit to Drive

Being Fit to Drive: The Physical Challenges of Driving, Fatigue & Illness

Updated Sept. 7, 2019

The importance of being fit to drive is often overlooked by new and experienced drivers alike. Your ability to drive safely does not only depend on having good vehicle control skills and a well-rounded knowledge of road rules. These attributes are essential, but they mean nothing if your body and mind are not up to the task of driving. Operating a vehicle safely requires a degree of physical strength and mobility, mental focus, good eyesight, sound decision making skills and fast enough reflexes to act on those decisions quickly.

Many motorists live with permanent disabilities or chronic health conditions that adversely affect their ability to drive. These people often require specialist equipment, vehicle adaptations or medical support to drive safely and qualify for a driver’s license. If you do not fall into this category – you’re fortunate! However, being free from long-term health problems does not mean you are ALWAYS “fit to drive”.

Injuries, illnesses, tiredness, stress and various other factors can change a person’s mental and physical state dramatically from one day to the next. As a relatively fit and healthy driver, you must learn to monitor your mental, physical and emotional well-being to ensure you are always fit to get behind the wheel. It is impossible to be a truly safe and responsible driver without this self-awareness.

The modules in this section cover everything a motorist must know about being fit to drive. We’ll discuss the mental and physical challenges posed by driving, followed by chronic illness, physical disabilities, temporary impairments, age, fatigue and various other factors that can impact your driving ability.

The mental challenge of multitasking

The constant need to multitask is perhaps the biggest source of mental strain drivers experience. When you become a more experienced motorist, multitasking behind the wheel will be largely automatic – and far less stressful than it is now! Even then, multitasking will still be a challenge that demands a degree of mental and physical fitness.

Practically every moment spent in control of a moving vehicle there will be multiple tasks to undertake at the same time. Some of these tasks will require a physical action, such as shifting gears, turning the steering wheel or turning to check your blind spots; whereas others will be exclusively “mental”, such as scanning the roadway for hazards, deciding whether it is safe to pass or interpreting pavement markings.

If you are distracted by physical discomfort or experiencing a mental impairment such as tiredness or emotional distress, your capacity for multitasking will be lessened. In this state, there is a far greater chance that you will forget something important or make a mistake. Learn more about this risk in “Multitasking While Driving – it’s Not Always a Bad Thing”.

How to multitask effectively

Next up, we introduce effective approaches to multitasking. To juggle multiple tasks consecutively or simultaneously while minimizing danger, drivers must:

  1. 1

    Manage time effectively.This includes never spending longer on a single task than is necessary, alternating between lengthier tasks and minimizing the time that your attention is away from the road.

  2. 2

    Avoid unnecessary distractions.Taking on any non-essential task just increases the risk that you will complete essential tasks poorly. If you are already managing several mental and physical actions, do not complicate the situation by checking your cellphone or chatting to your passengers.

  3. 3

    Act pre-emptively to avoid accidents and collisions.For example: a driver who is about to look away from the road should reduce their speed first. This minimizes the chances of something untoward happening while their attention is averted.

The physical challenges of driving

Controlling a vehicle demands the physical strength to turn the steering wheel, apply pressure to the pedals and hold oneself upright in the driver’s seat. You must also be mobile enough to get in and out of the vehicle, adjust your mirrors, reach all the in-car controls and turn to check your blind spots. If a disability or health condition prevents you from doing any of these things with ease, it may be possible to adapt your vehicle or install specialist equipment to help you drive safely.

Each time you drive, consider whether you are in good physical condition and are up to the task. Fit and healthy motorists must bear in mind that even minor physical injuries could impair their driving ability.

Disabilities and chronic conditions that affect driving

Many disabilities and long-term health conditions are linked to symptoms which can make driving difficult or dangerous. Any person who has a physical or medical condition which can cause poor vision, muscle weakness, limited muscle control, unpredictable loss of consciousness or seizures should discuss the prospect of driving with their physician before putting in a driver’s license application. It may be necessary to obtain a doctor’s note recommending that you are fit to drive.

Living with a permanent disability or chronic illness does not necessarily exclude you from driving, though, it may mean you must adhere to certain conditions to be awarded a license. This may include fitting your car with assistive technology or taking a specific prescribed medication to alleviate your symptoms. Discover more about the mental and physical health conditions which could warrant a restricted license.

Illness, injuries and medications

Temporary illnesses and injuries can adversely affect your driving ability just as much as permanent medical conditions, albeit for a shorter time. It is easy to forget about minor ailments when you are taking medication to relieve your discomfort, though remember that the medication itself could make driving dangerous. Always check the possible side-effects of any prescribed or over-the-counter drug you are using to alleviate pain or treat illness. This section covers types of drug and potential side-effects that may impede your driving ability.

If you are ill or suffering from a minor injury such as a sprain or a pulled muscle, consider other ways to get around besides driving. Remember that colds and common viruses can cause minor vision impairments, drowsiness and dulled reflexes. A person experiencing any of these symptoms would be far safer traveling by bus than they would driving themselves to work or school.

Driving safely as you age

Here, we will cover essential safety and license-renewal information for older adult drivers. Every person ages differently, though the effects of age are ultimately unavoidable. As you get older, you will likely experience a decline in eyesight, weakening muscles and restricted mobility. Recognizing this is essential if you hope to stay safe on the roads and retain your driver’s license for as long as possible!

Most states require older drivers to take mandatory vision test when renewing their license; some ask that you sit a driving skill test too. Irrespective of what it takes to retain your license, you must keep your driving skills up-to-date, get regular eye health checks and be prepared to make adjustments to your vehicle – if necessary. Safety should always be your number-one priority.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a toxic by-product of your vehicle’s internal combustion engine. This invisible, odorless gas can cause drowsiness, difficulty breathing, nausea, dizziness, headaches and confusion when inhaled in relatively small quantities. If you unintentionally inhale carbon monoxide while driving, these mental and physical side-effects would render you unsafe behind the wheel and could cause a crash. When breathed in over a long period of time or in high concentrations, carbon monoxide causes unconsciousness and death.

Modern vehicles are designed to process and release carbon monoxide safely via the exhaust system. Unfortunately, malfunctioning exhaust systems, cold weather, damage to the body of a vehicle and human error can all lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Never leave your engine running in an enclosed space (such as a garage), as toxic levels of carbon monoxide will build-up around and inside the vehicle. Getting your engine and exhaust system serviced regularly is a must too – particularly if you drive an older vehicle. Learn more about carbon monoxide poisoning and how to avoid it, in this dedicated article.

The dangers of fatigued driving

When it comes to driving, fatigue can be fatal. This module covers the causes of fatigue, risk factors, the consequences of fatigued driving, common myths and most importantly, how to avoid the fatigue-trap.

Fatigue is a complex condition which can negatively affect a person’s mental and physical state in a myriad of ways, which often go unnoticed. It is an enormous safety issue for American drivers, as so many of us operate in a constant state of fatigue and accept it as normal. Any activity or situation which wears away your ability to keep up mental or physical effort can lead to fatigue. Common contributing factors are sleep deprivation, stress, illness, emotional distress and just plain “working too hard”.

When suffering with fatigue you may feel tired, experience vision impairments, take longer to react, have trouble focusing, be unable to multitask, experience physical discomfort – or all the above. A fatigued driver is physically and mentally incapable of being a safe driver.

What causes fatigue?

Many situations can cause fatigue, but disordered sleep is the biggest issue for most drivers. Your body’s desire to sleep is completely instinctual and cannot be controlled. Without enough good-quality sleep, every system in your body will stop working as well as it should and will continue to decline until the next time you sleep. Other factors, such as stress and mental or physical work, will dramatically hasten the onset of fatigue when you are sleep deprived.

It is important to understand the two physical mechanisms which govern the way we sleep: circadian rhythms and homeostasis. With the information covered in this module, you can learn how to work with your body’s sleep systems rather than against them. Find out when you are most likely to feel tired and how to minimize the chances of getting sleepy while driving.

When is fatigue likely to strike?

We know that sleep deprivation and sustained mental or physical effort will eventually cause fatigue. Now, lets look at some real-world scenarios and find out who is most at risk of being involved in a fatigue-related accident or collision. Topping the list of at risk-groups are:

  1. 1

    Teenage drivers.Being young and fit will not protect you from fatigue! Find out why you are more likely to be involved in a fatigue-related accident than an older driver.

  2. 2

    Truck drivers.Driving at night and for many hours a day makes these drivers a prime target for fatigue.

  3. 3

    Shift workers.Any person who works irregular shifts during the evening or at night is more at risk of fatigue, as they are going against their body’s natural sleep systems.

  4. 4

    Medical professionals.These drivers are often shift workers, with the added risk factor of working long hours in emotionally, mentally and physically tiring jobs.

Drivers who do not fall into any of these categories are still be affected by fatigue. To stay safe, you must be able to identify the occasions when you are most at-risk; for instance, when driving in the dark, traveling long-distance, driving on straight, uneventful routes or for more than eight hours each day.

The consequences of fatigue when driving

Fatigue effects both body and mind. The severity of the symptoms you experience will depend on how fatigued you are. Remember that your fatigued state will worsen the longer you go without rest, ever increasing the risk that you will fall asleep at the wheel or make some mistake that causes an accident. In this section, we discuss the devastating physical and cognitive effects of fatigue, alongside some frightening fatigued-accident facts.

Fatigue facts and fiction

It has been proven that mental and physical fatigue can be just as detrimental to a person’s driving ability as alcohol. Despite this (and perhaps because there is no roadside test for fatigue) many drivers assume that driving while fatigued is not a big deal and will happily get behind the wheel when they’re not feeling their best.

Does this apply to you or somebody you know? Remember, you may be able to work, go to school and undertake countless other everyday tasks while tired with no negative consequences, but operating a vehicle is different. Driving is dangerous at the best of times. A mistake made in class or while walking down the street is unlikely to kill anybody, whereas a mistake made while driving just might.

If you think that willpower, coffee or limited sleep are enough to keep you awake and alert in the driver’s seat – think again. This crucial section of the course deals with these common misconceptions and various other fatigued driving myths. Find out the truth and stay safe.

Protecting yourself from fatigued driving

The only guaranteed way to protect yourself from a fatigue-related crash or collision (providing you are the fatigued driver in question), is not to drive when you are experiencing fatigue. This module covers the essentials of drowsy driving prevention, including:

  • Learning to spot the signs of fatigue
  • How to avoid driving while fatigued
  • Mitigating the symptoms of fatigue

Keep in mind that the fatigue mitigation techniques discussed in this article (e.g. listening to loud music or lowering the car’s temperature) are intended for use if you are already driving and cannot immediately stop when fatigue strikes. These tactics can help you get to a rest stop or another convenient place to stop the vehicle safely. Do not begin a journey – however short it may be – if you know you are suffering from the effects of fatigue.

The dangers of highway hypnosis

Most drivers have heard the term “highway hypnosis” but few fully understand what it means or how the phenomenon can affect their safety while driving. A driver experiencing highway hypnosis will disengage from the physical and mental task of driving yet will continue to drive subconsciously. This state can occur over short distances or entire journeys and is often brought on by familiar or uneventful driving environments. Highway hypnosis is sometimes referred to as “white line fever”, as drivers can become “hypnotized” by pavement markings passing beneath their vehicles.

At best, highway hypnosis is a worrying state of mind whereby a driver loses conscious engagement with the driving task. If the driver in question is awake and alert, they may simply arrive at their destination with no real recollection of the journey. In this light, highway hypnosis does not sound too dangerous. However, when coupled with fatigue, highway hypnosis is often deadly. If you are driving while fatigued, disengagement of the conscious mind is a fast-track to sleep.

All drivers must understand the risks of highway hypnosis, as most of us experience some degree of fatigue on a regular basis. In the final article of this block you will learn when highway hypnosis is most likely to occur and the steps you can take to avoid it.

Being fit to drive is a legal requirement

It is your responsibility to drive in manner which does not endanger human life. This includes making sure that you yourself are physically and mentally well enough to operate a vehicle safely and abstaining from driving if this is not the case. Beyond the license application process where long-term health problems and disabilities must be declared, you will be entirely in-charge of monitoring your own physical condition and making sensible decisions about when and when not to drive. Failure to do so would qualify as “reckless driving” or a similar offense in most states.

Driving is a difficult skill to master and will always be a dangerous activity. It is important that you treat the challenge of driving with the respect it deserves, even in years to come when you feel totally comfortable in the driver’s seat. Now, let’s start our exploration of what it means to be “fit to drive” with a discussion of the most important skill you will learn as a new driver: the ability to multitask.

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