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Fatigue management in the trucking industry

Tuesday, October 07, 2014 by Rhonda Locke

Fatigue management in the trucking industry

In our fourth blog about fatigue management in high-performing 24 hour industries, we explore the impact of fatigue on the trucking industry.

Professional truck driver regulations

The trucking industry has been making significant efforts to increase safety regulations over the past decade. 

Depending on the country, restrictions can apply to load weights, daily and weekly hours worked, routes travelled, and a lower legal limit on Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). In the United States, professional drivers have a maximum allowance of .04 percent.

Other countries, including Australia, have a policy of zero BAC when driving trucks on public roads. In some countries, trucks are also mandated to drive at lower speed limits, and restrictions have been placed on some highway and freeway traffic lanes.

Despite these regulations, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics quotes truck drivers as being six times more likely to die at work than other industries. 

According to the United States Census Bureau, in the ten years until 2009 there were, on average, more than 11,000 people killed in accidents involving light or large trucks. Of this number, an estimated 22.3% involved a driver with a BAC of .08% or higher.

Determining the number of accidents related to fatigue is not so easy. Roadside tests and autopsies can’t currently measure fatigue, so it is difficult to determine a driver’s fatigue level at the time of the accident. It can be presumed the number is significant though, as estimates vary from between 10 to 30% of accident fatalities have involved fatigue or drowsy driving.

Why do truckers drive tired?

In the US alone, the trucking industry employs 10 million people, out of a total national population of 300 million, and drivers carry more commercial freight than any other mode of transportation. 

Fatigue has been considered a significant risk for drivers for some time, but tackling an industry where drivers are only paid for the time they spend on the road driving, has proven extremely difficult. Drivers are not paid when they are off the road and often pay penalties, lose bonuses, or place their job at risk if they don’t deliver goods within very strict time frames. This can often lead to drivers being on the road far longer than would be considered safe practice.

From mid-2013, the US Transportation Department initiated changes to regulations on how long a driver can work. The new laws state a driver is limited to 11 hours of actual driving within a 14-hour period, and they require a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of on-duty time, after which they must rest for 10 hours. 

The rules do not explicitly require a driver must sleep, but the driver must take a period of ‘rest’ before driving again. Log books or an electronic on-board recorder chronicles the driver's hours and can be used to determine if they have been taking adequate rest stops throughout their journey.

These regulations however, do not take into consideration the quality of sleep or rest time between shifts of driving, and do not allow for common sleep disorders which can drastically change the alertness levels of an individual. 

This becomes even more profound when you consider the other demographic factors of an average driver. More than 70% of drivers in the US are men aged between 35 and 64. Given the sedentary nature of the profession, with long periods of time on the road leading to possible weight gain, the potential of suffering acute sleep conditions is far greater.

Reducing the risk of drowsy driving

The tragic accident in the US which injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed James McNair has raised public awareness of the fatigue risks associated in the trucking industry. 

Morgan’s legal team has filed a lawsuit in Federal court seeking a jury trial and punitive and compensatory damages. The lawsuit claims retail giant Walmart should have known its truck driver had been awake for more than 24 hours before the crash and his commute of 700 miles from his home in Georgia to work in Delaware was ‘unreasonable’. It also alleges the driver fell asleep at the wheel. Walmart has now publicly stated their intention to fight the charges.

In Australia, the courts recently have been taking a much stronger stance with drowsy drivers who have contributed to or have caused road accidents – especially when this has led to one or multiple fatalities.

Following two separate road accidents in 2010, the NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) conducted an audit into the fatigue management program of Australian road transport company SP Sand and discovered they had no systems to manage driver fatigue or to regulate driving hours. RMS then brought a series of charges against the company and recently the New South Wales Supreme Court found SP Sand guilty and fined them $42,900 for eight separate offences. In addition, the managing director and company scheduler were fined personally for 19 separate offences.

Since February 2014, tougher new regulations, the Australian Heavy Vehicles National Law, came into effect attracting a maximum penalty of $10,000 per offence. Additionally, operators who allow or encourage drivers to breach fatigue regulations may also face prosecution under state workplace health and safety laws. It is therefore essential transport operators have comprehensive fatigue management plans and procedures in place and they ensure drivers adhere to safe driving practices and avoid the risk of drowsy driving incidents.

The good news?

Technology is now available which can detect when an individual driver is getting tired. 

Optalert’s early-warning drowsy detection technology accurately measures in real time when an individual driver is drowsy, and does not just rely on log books which do not accurately measure the quality or quantity of sleep. It would be good to see all trucking companies taking a firmer and more responsible approach to fatigue management in the future. They have the opportunity to proactively do all they can to protect their drivers and others who share the roads with them.

Do your drivers need better protection from the potentially deadly risk of drowsiness? Take the quiz and find out which Optalert product is right for you. Click below to answer some quick questions.

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