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How to drive a long distance

Practical Motoring logo Practical Motoring 19-02-2016 Robert Pepper

Long distance driving is dangerous and usually very boring. It doesn't have to be that way...

DRIVING IN AUSTRALIA can involve some very long distances, which means long hours behind the wheel, something the average driver is not accustomed to. But "long" is a matter of opinion. Some people think anything over an hour to be a long drive, but most of my friends reckon that's a short hop and "long" is anything over half a day. So there is a simple definition of a "long" drive - anything longer than what you're used to.

Lengthy driving stints mean the risk of fatigue is very real, and fatigue is one of the biggest killers on our roads. Depending on which survey you read, around 20% of crashes involve fatigue, even higher in rural areas.

Fatigue is a problem because it significantly reduces a driver’s ability to safely handle the car. Roadsafe Victoria determined that being awake for 17 hours has the same effect on your driving ability as a blood alcohol level of 0.05, the legal limit. Simply, you won’t notice hazards as quickly, if at all (leading to a false sense of security), and when you do notice your reaction times will be slower, and you may make the wrong call. You may also microsleep; and at 100km/h you could be off the road into a tree in less than a second. Fatigue is a very serious problem and nobody should consider themselves immune.

The 17 hours figure is also just a guide. If you're already tired, out of your comfort zone or driving at the wrong time of day (or night) then fatigue may set in much quicker.

Preparation

Like everything else in driving, a successful long trip starts with planning. Know your route well, so you aren’t stressed by navigating or the need to make up time. Don’t commit to specific times, so you don’t need to rush to meet someone. Prepare the vehicle well ahead of time, and in particular increase tyre pressures by maybe 2 or 3psi as you’ll be at high speed for a long time, and probably heavily loaded. Plan several stop points along the way, more than needed as you don’t need to use all of them. Get a good night’s sleep, after everything is prepared, and avoid stimulants like caffeine and any alcohol.

Plan your route to avoid driving between midnight and 6 am, and between about 2 pm and 4 pm. The reason is your circadian rhythm, or daily pattern of alertness. Those who teach have long-lamented the slot immediately after lunch when attention wanders, and for good reason. Humans do indeed have reduced alertness around these hours, and crash researchers have noticed there is a disproportionate amount of accidents – twice to six times more -- at these times. Another rule is don’t drive when you’d normally be sleeping, and remember that you suffer from fatigue on the road instantly if you start off tired.

Have a backup plan too. Attempting a long drive runs the risk of not making it, and you’ll be under less pressure if there’s a Plan B.

Techniques

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The first technique is posture. The correct driving position is one where your feet can operate the pedals fully without overstretching the leg, and where you are close enough to steering wheel to drape your wrist over the top of the wheel with your shoulders hard back against the seat. Don’t forget sunglasses to protect your eyes, and wear loose, open, comfortable clothes.

Drive smoothly and steadily as opposed to fast, trying to eke out the last couple of km/h. Don’t stress about having to slow down a couple of kays behind a slow vehicle. If you drove for 1000km at 100km/h it’d take 10 hours, but at 96kmph the whole way only 25 minutes longer and even that little less speed is a lot less stress. Drink water, and lots of it, never alcohol. Caffeine drinks can feel good, but like a sugar hit once the high wears off you’re worse off than before. Frequent consumption of caffeine can lead to dependency, and a tolerance to its stimulating effects so you need more and more of it to get the hit. Take snacks, but go for fruits and cereals, nothing sugary or fatty.

Stop every two hours or so, perhaps a little longer, perhaps a little shorter, but listen to your body. But if you aren’t going to use the stop time properly you may as well not bother, it’s more about what you do, not the stop itself. Don’t just sit down and vege out, make sure you get up, go for a walk, stretch. Consider parking the car some distance from whatever facility you’ve stopped at, just do stretch yourself. A few smaller breaks are better than one big one with longer stints. You’ll need to eat, but take light meals. Pigging out on pasta is a bad move, a salad is much more easily digested and is the better choice.

Something else to consider when stopping is a power nap. Research at Flinders University has shown that subjects waking from a 10-minute nap demonstrate an immediate significant increase in alertness that lasts for at least an hour afterwards. However, a 30-minute nap doesn’t have such an immediate effect, producing its alertness improvement about half an hour after the nap ends. Power naps are not, however, a substitute for proper sleep. Use them when you feel drowsy, before it’s too late, and keep them to no more than 15 minutes. A tip; humans like to sleep reclined, and not even laying your car seat flat will really do the trick. So, if you, can, put the front wheels up a steep slope for a little extra comfort. Crack a window a little open, and settle in. Signs you need a power nap are yawning, over-correcting, noticing you’re taking longer to react, not caring about things as much, not remembering the last few minutes, sore eyes or blurred vision and to be honest you’ll pretty much feel it anyway, but most people kid themselves into just keeping going. Don’t be that foolish.

Many recreational 4WDs have a UHF radio fitted, and outside of the small-minded idiots that pollute the channel in the cities you can find many genuinely friendly people with lots of useful information. Set yours on scan, or listen to channel 40 and don’t be afraid to say hello, we’ve met many a fellow traveller who has provided delightful company along the way and at the next stop. This is all part of keeping the mind active as you drive. That’s active, but not distracted. Fresh air, and a cool but not cold temperature also helps. Audiobooks are a wonderful way to while away the time, or make a phone or three to old mates. Phonecalls are increasingly rare these days, and like a paper letter, are therefore even more valued.

While it may be anathema to some, sharing the driving does work, allowing extra relaxation time. However, merely being a passenger can be fatiguing, so it’s not really a case of double the drivers, double the distance.

Finishing

Park up and congratulate yourself on a successful trip. But if you had a near miss, think back to what might have avoided it. Perhaps a longer rest the night before?

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