The impact of sleep deprivation and alcohol on driving: a comparative study

Joanna Lowrie (Lead / Corresponding author), Helen Brownlow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)
93 Downloads (Pure)


Background: There is concern about the detrimental effects of shift-workers' increasing working hours particularly when driving sleep deprived. The approach to measuring the magnitude of driving impairment caused by sleep deprivation was by comparing it to alcohol. The study compared driving performance after 24-h of wakefulness to performance with a BrAC of just over 22 μg/100mls of breath which is equal to 50 mg of alcohol per 100mls of blood (Scottish drink-drive limit). The effectiveness of coffee as a countermeasure for driver fatigue and the association between subjective impairment and actual performance was also investigated.

Methods: A study of 30 participants (11 male and 19 female; mean age 21) was conducted. Subjects were tested under three conditions: fully rested, sleep deprived, and alcohol intoxicated - BrAC mean [SD] 25.95 μg [2.78]. Under each condition, subjects were tested before and after coffee ingestion. This involved driving simulation (Lane Change Task and Reaction Test) and subjective Likert scales (Karolinska Sleepiness Scale and driver impairment scale). Outcome measures included lane tracking adaptive mean deviation, reaction time, and subjective sleepiness and impairment ratings.

Results: Compared to alcohol, sleep deprived mean reaction times were slower (2.86 s vs. 2.34 s) and lateral control of the vehicle was reduced (lane tracking adaptive mean deviation: 0.5 vs. 0.3). Coffee did not produce an improvement when sleep deprived, and instead, performance deteriorated. Females were less impaired following sleep deprivation than males. Following prolonged wakefulness, the correlation between subjective impairment and actual performance was significant.

Conclusions: It was concluded that sleep deprivation has a greater impact on driving performance than a BrAC of 22 μg/100mls of breath, as measured by driving simulation. Coffee is not an effective countermeasure for sleep deprived driving and drivers' ability to judge this impairment is suggested to be limited.

Original languageEnglish
Article number980
Number of pages9
JournalBMC Public Health
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jun 2020


  • Driving
  • Road traffic accident
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee
  • Caffeine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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