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Fatigued driving is the act of operating a motor vehicle while drowsy due to inadequate sleep or rest.
When comparing the symptoms and effects of fatigued driving, such a state can be nearly equated to drunk driving. According to the National Sleep Foundation, simply being awake for 18 continuous hours has the same impact on one’s reaction time to having a blood alcohol content of 0.05%—approaching the DUI limit of most of the United States. Remaining awake beyond that can result in the equivalent reaction time of a 0.1% blood alcohol level—far exceeding the legal blood alcohol limit usually accepted at around 0.08%—considered “impaired.”
To put the topic of fatigued truck driving into perspective, we need to look at some statistics:
- According to 2015 USDOT figures, 35,092 people died in highway accidents.
- 11% of those fatal accidents involved large commercial trucks.
- Fatigued driving played a role in 15% of major truck-related accidents and 30% of such accidents resulting in a fatality—according to the FMSCA.
“What does this mean?”
To put these figures into perspective, using the before-mentioned data, one can assume that for every 50 truck drivers you see on the highway, at least one of them is driving in a fatigued state approaching or beyond the reactionary equivalent of a drunk driver.
According to the above-mentioned 2015 USDOT report, heavy trucks were only involved in about 3.8% of highway accidents. However, heavy trucks are involved in 11% of fatal highway accidents, with some 30% of these fatal accidents involving fatigued driving—according to the FMSCA data.
All in all, according to the NHTSA, drowsy driving is related to an average of 1,221 fatalities a year—or around 2.4% of fatal accidents in 2021. These figures are also considered low due to the inconsistent nature of reporting drowsy driving.
On a base level, drowsy driving results in accidents that hurt or even kill truck drivers. But even for those drivers that somehow engage in drowsy driving without causing accidents, they still do not remain unscathed. A work lifestyle in which fatigued driving is a possibility is a symptom of an unsustainable work environment. Few incidents of drowsy driving are outliers. They are likely preceded by many unreported close calls and near-misses. All reports of drowsy driving—accident-causing or not—should cause any trucking entity (driver and company both) to re-evaluate their driving practices and driver expectations. We will discuss these further in this piece.
In addition to the loss of life and limb due to dozing drivers, the sheer monetary cost of drowsy driving from work interruptions, health insurance claims, equipment damage, and litigation is immensely expensive for companies. Where such instances of rampant driver abuse exist in the form of unreasonable driver expectations, the brand image and reputation of many trucking companies can become bruised. High-profile clients may become wary of connections to companies in the news and courts for fostering conditions and expectations that result in fatigue-induced wrecks. Simply put, drowsy driving is bad for business.
Yep! Though there have been many laws on the books aimed at trucking companies in attempts to curb fatigued driving, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) handed down a major overhaul of such regulations in 2015.
Some of the laws include:
- It is illegal to require a driver to drive when alertness is impaired—whether through fatigue, illness, or other reason (§ 392.3).
- Drivers may not work more than 70 hours a week unless they take 34 hours of rest time which includes two nights.
- There is a 30-minute required break during the first 8 hours on duty.
- A driver that has worked for 14 consecutive hours is required to then take 10 consecutive hours off before returning to work.
Due to the nature of the trucking industry, most truck drivers are not employees, but rather are independent contractors paid by the mile and rated on their ability to deliver loads on time. Drivers may also not be in control of when their mandated breaks occur, causing them to attempt to sleep even if they’re not acclimated to such a sleep schedule. These conditions combined with longer load times (which may be unpaid hours for independent contractors) and truck driver shortages have both drivers as well as their dispatch supervisors on edge about offsetting delays. Sadly, this dash for miles can result in driving while drowsy—aka, fatigued driving.
Sometimes, drowsy driving can occur even when a driver believes they are completely unimpaired by fatigue.
If you’re a driver, whether a truck driver or otherwise, here are a few telltale signs of possible impairment due to drowsiness.
- Blurring vision
- Inability to focus—either on the road, a conversation, or an audio program
- Inordinate daydreaming or sensation of being elsewhere
- Frequent blinking or yawning
- Swerving—even slightly
- The feeling of heavy eyelids, a heavy head, or unintentional nodding
- Inability to recall the last few moments
If you begin to feel any of these sensations or otherwise feel impaired, pull over in a safe area to rest. Do not let a fear of repercussions from dispatch supervisors, decreased mileage, or missing deadlines allow you to drive when you feel impaired. You call the shots when it comes to the safety of your truck as the law is on your side, which clearly states: “Operation may be discontinued at the driver’s discretion.”
Here are a few tips for drivers to help prevent fatigued driving.
Guard Your Sleep Schedule
Getting adequate sleep is not only the key to remaining a safe driver but also a healthy individual. To ensure you get to sleep in time to obtain the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per 24-hour period, set two sleep alarms—one to remind you to prepare for sleep and another “lights out” alarm.
To assist in getting quality sleep:
- Avoid caffeinated beverages about 5 hours before sleep time.
- Use black-out curtains or a sleeping blindfold to keep out light.
- Try to go to sleep at the same time every day/night.
- Avoid sleep-inhibiting blue light emitting screens before sleep (phones, TVs, etc.).
Keep Your Truck Cab Cool
A warm environment can cause you to become drowsy. If you’re feeling tired, bring the temperature slightly below your normal comfort level.
Embrace the Power Nap
Whenever you feel impaired or when time allows, short power naps anywhere from 10-30 minutes can have a dramatic impact on your alertness. Try to keep them under 30 minutes, however, to avoid impacting your normal sleep schedule. Even if you’re unable to gain any detectably meaningful sleep during such a time, regular practice over time can help train your mind to fully utilize a power nap window. Some power nappers report that consuming a caffeinated beverage just before their power nap provides enough of a fuse that allows them to awaken from their nap feeling less groggy.
Revisit the Food You Consume
You are what you eat—and what you’re eating may be making you sleepy. To keep you from growing sluggish behind the wheel, try to avoid heavier, less nutritious foods. Heavily processed foods require more energy to break down and pack less of a nutrient punch—not only leaving you tired but hungry again.
Drink More Water
Drinking water is essential for efficient bodily function, keeping you alert and feeling great as you roll down the road. Water also helps combat drowsiness and headaches from strained vision—something that impacts drivers who have put many hours behind the wheel in a shift.
Engage Your Mind
The repetitious and monotonous nature of the road can lead to daydreaming and drowsiness. To combat this, consider ways to engage your mind. Find podcast programs on subjects that pique your interest or make you laugh. Arrange safe phone conversations with friends or family for moments when you are prone to drowsiness or boredom. Either of these are great ways to keep your mind from drifting into drowsiness on the road.
Seek Out an Overall Healthy Lifestyle
To make living healthy as easy for truck drivers as possible, we’ve compiled 16 Simple Health Hacks for Truckers—in video, podcast, and written form. These versions of this guide include tips on eating well, remaining mobile, and maintaining one’s peace of mind.
Combating drowsy driving is in the best interest of drivers, trucking companies, and the public. For this reason, we must all do what we can to allow for the safest working conditions in which drivers do not feel pressured to drive impaired. It is within all of our power to advocate for driver safety—whether physical or economic—and celebrate the companies that are doing more to further driver health.