Sleep-deprived driving is socially unacceptable

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The Independent Online

The police officers who helped bring Gary Hart to justice for the deaths of 10 people in the Selby rail crash said all sleep-deprived drivers should be treated as "social outcasts". That is a laudable aim, but it will take time. Although only 8 per cent of drivers admit to having nodded off at the wheel, there is a widespread feeling that there, but for the grace of God, goes someone very much like the rest of us.

Driving while tired is not as socially unacceptable as drink-driving, although it should be. Attitudes to drink-driving have changed – 20 years ago it was not considered serious – and attitudes to sleep-deprived driving can change, too.

This is not to say that Hart should receive a long prison sentence simply to send a warning to others. The publicity attached to his case has already done far more than any harsh sentence – or even the most expensive advertising campaign – ever could to raise public awareness of the dangers of sleep deprivation. Indeed it is difficult to see what purpose would be served by a custodial sentence of more than a few months, beyond punishing Hart, who seems tortured by what he has done, for his attempts to deny responsibility. It would make more sense to ban him from driving for several years.

It is not possible, however, simply to equate tired driving with drink-driving. Alcohol, like lack of sleep, may affect different people to different extents, but its presence in the blood can be measured, whereas a level of tiredness cannot be assessed in such an objective way.

It was only through the exploitation of modern technology, using Hart's mobile-phone records to show he was up all night, that his lack of sleep – an extreme case – could be proven. This only goes to show that it is not access to electronic data that is itself offensive (see above), but the arrangements for judicial supervision.

There is no need, therefore, to make an example of Hart in order to persuade other drivers of the dangers of sleep deprivation. More important is to spread awareness of figures produced by Brake, the road safety campaign, which suggest that driver tiredness may be a factor in as many as 10 deaths a week on the roads – equivalent to a Selby crash every week.

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