Caffeine reduces driver errors on the road, says Australian research

By @iamkarlatecson on
Truck driver
A driver takes a nap inside his parked auto-rickshaw along the roadside in the old quarters of Delhi May 30, 2014. Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

Caffeine consumption can significantly lessen a driver’s errors on the road, suggests a new fatigue study by the Australian Defence Force. The researchers also found that contrary to popular belief, caffeine does little to reduce one’s drowsiness.

The study, presented at the Australian Psychological Society Conference, is part of an extensive research into ways of reducing fatigue in both individuals and teams, particularly in Army vehicles. It sought to analyse whether caffeine is an effective countermeasure against cognitive fatigue, which is critical to real-time operator tasks, said Dr Eugene Aidman, senior cognitive scientist of the Defence Science and Technology Group.

For the research, scientists examined how caffeinated chewing gum affects drowsiness and driving performance on people who were sleep-deprived. According to Aidman, they used caffeinated gum for the experiment since it only takes 10 minutes for most of the dose to be absorbed by the brain, and the effects last for 90 minutes. Drinking coffee, he said, takes the body 30 to 90 minutes to absorb, and the lasting effect is unpredictable.

To test the efficacy of caffeine in combating fatigue, participants in the study were kept awake for 50 hours and were required to drive on 15 occasions in a simulated vehicle for 40 minutes each. Researchers divided the participants into two groups, giving caffeinated gum to one team and a placebo of the same gum with no caffeine on the other.

The team measured levels of drowsiness during the simulated driving study using a spectacle frame-mounted infrared sensor-registering blink velocity. Lane keeping and speed variability measures were also used to assess driving performance.

Based on the study’s results, there was a much lower incidence of driving errors despite the participants' drowsiness in the covered period. The researchers also found an association between growing drowsiness and driving errors in the placebo group.

“While the findings are relevant to Defence, they have significant implications for civilian application such as emergency services and long-haul transport,” said Chief Defence Scientist Dr Alex Zelinsky.

The Defence study supports a previous Australian research conducted in 2013, which found that drivers who consumed caffeine to help them stay awake were 63 percent less likely to crash than drivers who did not take caffeinated substances. In the study published in the British Medical Journal, the researchers concluded that intake of caffeinated substances can provide significant protection against crash risk for the long-distance commercial driver. They cautioned, however, that the benefit is only useful for a short time and that regular breaks, napping and appropriate work schedules are strongly recommended.

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