If you’re a long-haul trucker or you drive commercially for any reason, you have probably battled fatigue while behind the wheel. It’s just part the job, and everyone has their own ways of fighting it. Some drivers load up on the caffeine, while others turn up the music, open the windows, or even resort to illegal drug use to keep themselves awake.
This side of the job isn’t always pretty, but everyone knows it’s there. However, very few people know exactly how significant of an issue this is, what has gone on behind the scenes of trying to regulate driver sleep, and how to actually prevent drowsy driving.
How Big of a Problem is Drowsy Driving?
In a 2007 study done by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, fatigue was a critical factor in 13% of all accidents involving large, commercial vehicles. A “critical factor” means that the accident likely would not have happened without this factor. Since there can be several causes for every accident, the study tried to focus on what put the vehicles on a course that made the collision unavoidable.
However, this is the only significant study that focuses specifically on commercial drivers and fatigue. To truly know the depth of the problem, researchers need to perform more studies and see if these results can be replicated.
One study did attempt to compare different driving schedules among truckers to see if there was a difference in sleepiness levels and episodes of sleep while driving. The researchers weren’t specific about their conclusions, but they did conclude that truckers do not sleep enough for the amount of work that they do and that they are more likely to have accidents late at night or early in the morning.
While there’s not a lot of research focusing specifically on truck drivers or other commercial drivers, there has been some focus on the effects of drowsy driving across all accidents. An English study shows that 16% of crashes are caused by insufficient sleep on the part of at least one driver, and an Italian one attributes 21.9% of crashes to sleep deprivation or fatigue. While these are not truck specific studies, they do show that drowsy driving is a significant factor when it comes to automobile accidents. In another study, over 50% of drivers reported driving while drowsy at least once and 25% reported having actually fallen asleep at the wheel.
It is quite possible that driver fatigue is actually more significant than any of these studies show. Unfortunately, driver fatigue is very difficult to detect at the scene of an accident. While there are blood and breath tests for alcohol and other drugs, there’s currently no way to test for fatigue.
The Politics of Regulation
Based on the trucking study outlined above, the government came up with new regulations for commercial vehicle drivers in 2013. These were designed to help the drivers get more sleep. Here are the highlights of these laws:
- The maximum number of hours that a commercial driver can work is set at 70 per week. This is down from the previous amount of 82. Lawmakers did this in the hopes that it would help truckers get more sleep.
- When a driver hits that limit, he or she must take a mandatory 34-hour resting period.
- This period MUST include two periods between 1 and 5 AM. This is designed to make sure truckers get at least two nights a week where they can get good sleep.
- Each driver can only drive 11 hours in any 24-hour period, and that must include at least one 30-minute break.
Unfortunately, truckers and trucking companies have resisted these laws. Many truckers claim that years on the job have trained their bodies to feel less fatigue. Others claim that they cannot make a living wage under these new laws since independent truckers are paid by the mile and this drastically reduces the number of miles they can travel.
Also, the American Trucking Association claims that the study that these laws was based on, at least in part, is incorrect. While they acknowledge that fatigue goes underreported as a cause of accidents, they claim that their analysis shows fatigue as a factor in only 7% of trucking accidents. They use this information to claim that regulating truckers’ hours was unnecessary.
The battle continues today. Politicians with constituents who are invested in the trucking and commercial driving world fight to let drivers drive more, while others ask for even more regulation.
Sleep and Related Issues Commercial Drivers Face
Fatigue from driving so long is one clear and obvious issue that commercial drivers face. However, their sleep problems can cause or come from other issues, too.
This sleep disorder has been shown to cause significant levels of fatigue. While the best study on the topic was done on pilots, it’s not hard to see that drivers need to function at similar levels in similar skill sets in order to drive well. Other studies have shown that sleeping with sleep apnea causes the same amount of fatigue as getting less than 5 hours of sleep per night.
Since most people need somewhere between 7 and 9 hours every night, this is a significant amount of sleepiness. In addition, sleep apnea is exacerbated and, in some cases, caused by obesity. Since truck drivers are among the most likely workers to be obese (38.6% struggled with obesity, according to one study), sleep apnea and the ensuing drowsiness is more likely to be an issue for them than it is for other people.
Many truckers end up resorting to illegal drug use in order to stay awake. These drugs include marijuana, amphetamines, and cocaine. Some combine caffeine and ephedrine which, while not illegal, is also not a great combination for driving.
Not only can stimulant drugs impair the trucker’s ability to drive, but they can also cause the driver to miss his or her own fatigue. Drivers on these substances might claim they feel fine to drive, when they really need to rest.
Sleeping pill use
Because truckers don’t sleep on a regular schedule, they often struggle to fall asleep when they need to, so they end up driving while exhausted even with mandatory rest periods. Some of them turn to sleeping pills so they can fall asleep when they need to. However, sleeping pills can leave you with a significant amount of sleep inertia, or the desire to sleep even after you’ve been awake for a while. If you have to wake up before the pill wears off, they can leave you feeling even more tired than you were before you rested.
Sleeping in a sleeper berth
While sleeper berths attached to the cabs of trucks seem to solve a lot of problems for truckers (where to sleep, how to sleep when they’re away from home but can’t legally drive anymore, what to do about sleep when they’re in the middle of nowhere, etc.), sleeping in these berths actually seems to cause more accidents.
When truckers try to drive late at night, they are more likely to have an accident within an hour of waking up, especially if their sleep took place in a berth. This seems to indicate that these berths don’t provide all the solutions, after all.
Sleep Tips for Commercial Drivers
If you are a commercial driver or you know one, it’s important to educate yourself about drowsy driving, what helps mitigate it, and what makes it worse.
1. Get Enough Sleep Before You Drive
If you know you won’t get a lot of sleep while you’re working, make sure you get sleep before you go. Honor the 34-hour waiting period between driving sessions and get as much sleep as you can during it. Try to give yourself the freedom to sleep whenever you are tired, even if that is in the middle of the day. Your body is not on a great schedule so you need to honor its needs, whenever they arise.
2. Take a Nap When You’re Tired
If you do get tired while you’re driving, pull over and take a nap. This can be hard when you’re on someone else’s schedule, but it’s better to stop and rest than get into an accident. Your ideal nap is at least 45 minutes. If you can, try to take your nap before you feel drowsy. It will be more effective at making you feel rested. Remember, even a short nap leaves you feeling more awake than caffeine does.
3. Don’t Drive at Night
Most people are naturally drowsy from 12-6 AM and 2-4 PM. If you can, avoid driving during these times. Use these hours for your breaks as best you can, so you don’t end up driving when your body really doesn’t want to be doing anything. Sure, those nighttime hours are also the hours when your road is the most open, but an open road is not worth an accident.
4. Avoid Medications that Make You Sleepy
Sure, you don’t want to drive while under the influence of sleeping pills, but there are a lot of other medications out there that can make you sleepy. Most of them are labeled as such, so you can check the packaging to make absolutely sure. In general, be wary of allergy medications, cold medicines, and medication for anxiety or depression. If in doubt, test the medication before you try to drive under its influence.
5. Pay Attention to Nutrition
It can be hard to eat well when all of your meals come from gas stations or fast food, but your body will thank you for it by being more awake and aware when you need it most. Try to eat regularly and include healthy fats, proteins, and carbohydrates in each meal. Don’t get too hungry, because that will only add to your fatigue. And don’t eat large, greasy meals before you try to sleep, as they can make it harder to get good rest.
6. Know What Drowsy Driving Looks and Feels Like
If you start yawning, you need to pull over. Similarly, if your vision starts to blur or you feel like you can’t keep your eyes open, it’s time to stop driving for a while. You may have some different symptoms that pop up when you’re getting tired. Know yourself and your body, and stop diving at the first sign of sleepiness.
7. Remember: You Can’t Trick Yourself Into Staying Awake
A lot of drivers have their “go to” tricks that they claim will keep them awake when they’re tired. However, things like turning up the music, rolling down the window, blasting the air conditioner, and even drinking caffeine have not been shown to be useful in helping drivers stay awake. These may work for a minute or two, but once your body adjusts it gets sleepy again. When you’re tired, the only solution is rest.
8. Use an Alert System
Maven Machines offers a bluetooth headset that tracks driver fatigue and notifies them in real time when they’re getting tired and need to pull over. Over time, the headset will even track biorhythms, to help drivers plan their sleep and stops ahead of time. In the moment, it tracks head movements associated with sleepiness and lets a driver know when he needs to pull over. This takes the subjectiveness out of it and helps drivers know when they need to stop.
Driver fatigue will probably always be an issue for truckers and other commercial drivers. The key is to manage it well, so it doesn’t get the better of you. After all, no one wants to cause a major accident!