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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
The Highway Code is full of useful advice, mixed with instructions from all the traffic regulations (often sprinkled with block capitals). But have you noticed how little space is given to the vital matter of fighting tiredness at the wheel?
There is not even a clear instruction: you MUST NOT fall asleep while driving. Surely this command is to be found in one law or another? Perhaps it looks a bit silly in print ó but I can remember nearly disobeying it on three occasions. Each event I think taught me a different lesson (or maybe the same one in stages).
The first time was 25 years ago, almost to the day. I know this because it was when I moved house from Harlow to Reading. The cause of my tiredness was staying up all the night before, packing.
Finally in the evening I drove off, heading for an overnight stop with relatives in Camberley. The latter part of the journey was a continuous fight against nodding off, which I believe I only won because of having to struggle also with the complexity of the route.
The lesson I learned was of course never to do a lengthy (or preferably any) drive after a lost nightís sleep, especially if itís the following evening already. Digressing slightly, I once had to drive a short distance after being woken in the small hours. Once on the road I was wide awake but well aware that my driving ability was below 100%, so I made allowances.
This sensation was curiously different from being sleepy at the wheel. Then, I suspect, one is less aware of the danger and may not even think of slowing down. What seems to happen is that you become dozy gradually but the final switching-off is instant, without warning.
Knowing this makes the memory of the second episode even more alarming. It happened a couple of years after the first. I was driving home alone at night on the M4. Soon after you pass J8/9 the lights come to an end and you lose a valuable aid to keeping alert. Even before that point, however, my eyes were twitching.
By the time I reached my exit at J10 (not illuminated then as it is now) I was in more danger than I realized. My eyes closed, and when they opened again I was on the chevrons between the motorway and the slip-road, with the driver of a car behind me desperately flashing his or her lights. Ever since that narrow escape I have always stopped for a nap, at either the first twitch of the eyes or the third yawn, whichever comes first...
Strong coffee may be a good alternative to a doze for some people, but it affects my heart-beat (as well as keeping me awake when it really is bedtime). Taking a break is not exactly convenient on most motorways, which could so easily have been equipped with more frequent stopping-places. However, I can recommend the layby just towards Slough off J6 of the M4, which I have used several times over the years for late-night naps en route to Reading ó after which I am wide awake for the rest of the drive.
I get equal benefit from a short sleep interrupting daytime journeys too, though it can be harder then to make yourself actually drop off. Counting sheep doesnít help me. Oddly enough, the most effective trick that I have discovered for relaxing the brain and inducing sleep is to close my eyes and picture my fingers typing out a sentence or two of text slowly, letter by letter. Somehow this never fails to ... zzz ...
Sorry, I couldnít resist that. As I was saying: this method never fails me by day or by night, but donít ask me how it works. Five or ten minutes later I wake up refreshed and ready to go.
I must say that Mrs S is very understanding of these sudden decisions of mine to take a rest from driving ó but then her safety is just as much at stake as mine is! Perhaps I should explain that she has long been used to an automatic gearbox and therefore doesnít at present relish the thought of driving of my car.
Why then didnít I stop a third time (this was only last year) when I should have done? Simply because we were on a short journey and only about twelve minutes from home. It seemed absurd to take a break in Bracknell, and so once again I found myself struggling against the effects of a dark motorway to Reading. I only realized afterwards that I had learnt a further lesson.
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