Every year, to escape the chaos of pre-Christmas, I join a group of motorcycling friends for four glorious days of motorcycling in Victoria’s High Country. While the rest of Australia is not yet on the move or is still battling the crowds as they feverishly do last-minute shopping, we have the roads to ourselves and the free camping sites at Anglers Rest and Jingellic in NSW.
Our group of six rode over Mt Hotham, the new Mitta Mitta road covered in gravel, and back over Falls Creek. It was during dinner at the Blue Duck Inn at Anglers Rest, opposite where we’d pitched our tents on the first night, that I announced I’d had my first microsleep – ever. There was silence followed by calls of ‘Impossible. Not on a motorcycle’. Then one of our group said yes, it’d happened to him. It was years ago, in his twenties when he often stayed up late but now, in middle-age, he’d slowed down and was always well rested before getting into the saddle.
The evening took on the mood of a group therapy session but, out of the six of us, we discovered only two had suffered the phenomenon. Mine had happened that afternoon at around 2pm while riding my Triumph Thruxton on a 30km stretch of straight road between Milawa and Myrtleford as we headed to the High Country. I’d been tired behind the wheel before but I’d never felt even the tiniest bit tired while on a motorcycle. In fact, I buzz with the thrill of it all, my brain taking on the mannerisms of a supercharged computer as it assesses risk, potential hazards and the line I’ll take through the next bend.
So, seriously, just how could you nod off while your synapses are firing like a Gatling gun?
But sleepy roads, those straight stretches, are different. In my denial that microsleeps could happen to motorcyclists, I continued to ride with the constant drone of 100km/h even though I was yawning and shaking my head vigorously. Then, for a second or maybe longer, I nodded off.
One moment, I was awake and in control – then blackness. The light switch turned on again with the front wheel on the edge of the tarmac, the Thruxton about to head off into a field. The shock pumped me with adrenalin and, when we stopped for fuel shortly after, I skulled a can of energy drink.
WHAT IS A MICROSLEEP?
A microsleep can last from three seconds to 13 seconds and happens when you’re so fatigued that the brain takes over and momentarily shuts down. We’re more susceptible during times when we’re biologically programmed for sleep. Researchers call this our low circadian periods, which are from midnight to 6am and 2pm to 4pm. But a microsleep doesn’t happen without warning. First there’s loss of concentration followed by yawns and droopy eyes. When this happens you need to STOP immediately.
Caught up finishing a last minute work project, I ignored all the advice about an early night before a long ride.
Coupled with a 5am start to tie up loose ends, pack and be at the departure point by 9am, it all lead to the ‘perfect storm’. But I was one of the lucky ones: I woke up.
I brought up the subject at ‘Shed night’. As the guys played darts, I asked if anyone ever had a microsleep on a motorcycle. The response was a bit like asking if anyone supported Tony Abbott. Then a single voice called out: “Yeah, I have. Happens all the time.” It came from the rider of a cruiser-style motorcycle with heated everything, a large plush seat, a wide screen – even cruise control. His microsleep affliction was understandable as researchers have reported that the likelihood of a microsleep is linked to the level of comfort of the vehicle.
As he threw the dart, I whacked him on the shoulder – horrified he’d let it happen more than once.
While fatigue is a serious issue with drivers and an estimated 20 per cent of driver fatalities nationally are said to be caused by microsleeps, the phenomenon is rarely discussed in motorcycling circles.
As one of seven independent members on the Victorian Government’s Motorcycle Advisory Group, the subject of microsleep has never been discussed at our quarterly meetings.
With over 300 years of motorcycling experience between us, our role is to advise road authorities how to improve road safety for motorcyclists. An ongoing practice at these MAG meetings is the collection and analysis of motorcycle accident data.
At one of these meeting, an independent member raised the issue that suicide needed to be considered in data collection as there were often no obvious reasons for single-vehicle motorcyclist fatalities on straight stretches of road. Suicide? Surely microsleeps are a viable alternative reason.
Damien Codognotto OAM of the IRG (Independent Riders’ Group), says the incidence of microsleeps in motorcycling has largely been ignored by road safety authorities.
“This is a serious issue and more up-to-date research is desperately needed to find out how fatigue contributes to single vehicle motorcycle accidents,” he said.
The Motorcycle Council of NSW also has called for more research into fatigue and motorcycling and states that motorcycle road safety advocates are concerned this ignorance will lead to riders not being adequately warned about the very real dangers of having a microsleep.
As we head into a future where we are asked to work longer and harder and we become more sleep-deprived, the next time you get the yawns on a sleepy road, don’t push through it – pull over before its lights out.
Better still, get a good night’s sleep before that much anticipated and well-earned motorcycling weekend away.
HOW TO AVOID A MICROSLEEP
Sleep is the only cure for fatigue, which can lead to a microsleep and can be fatal. But a microsleep doesn’t come from out-of-the-blue as there are always warning signs telling you how sleepy you are.
Professor Narelle Haworth, a leading road safety researcher from Queensland University of Technology who co-wrote the VicRoads-funded 2006 national study titled Fatigue in Motorcycle Crashes. Is There an Issue?, says riders need to stop immediately when feeling fatigued.
“Microsleeps affect motorcyclists the same way as drivers but often with more severe consequences,” she says.
While the best remedy to avoid a microsleep is a good night’s rest before your ride, her research found that pulling over and having a snack will get you out of trouble in the short term.
“Studies have found that a break of just five to 10 minutes combined with a snack such as a muesli bar and orange juice can help,” Haworth said.
“A rest break, however, does not lead to an improvement in performance but rather a reduction in the rate of deterioration of performance.”
Her research found that a lack of sleep was not the only contributor to fatigue in motorcyclists.
“While fatigue in car driving appears to be largely a cognitive and sleep issue, fatigue in motorcycling can also have a strong physical, muscular component, such as weather, dehydration, vibration, noise and riding for extended periods in a fixed position.
“This can lead to muscle tiredness and errors of judgement while attempting complex manoeuvres.”
She said a review of motorcycle crash data in Victoria from 2000 to 2004 found that there was some evidence that more riders crashed during the low circadian period from 2pm to 4pm, particularly on weekends, and advised that riders needed to be aware of this when riding on long stretches or those ‘sleepy roads’ during early afternoon.
Professor Haworth also agreed that more research was needed as a lack of data meant that reliable conclusions could not be reached regarding the factors contributing to crashes caused by motorcyclists suffering fatigue.