How to prevent driver fatigue

A document published in 2001 by the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) complained that over the more than 30 years since EC Regulation 543/69, multiple initiatives to regulate drivers’ hours had failed to reduce the impact of fatigue on driving safety.  

The ETSC said the safety argument was brushed aside too often “in the face of a commercial logic that requires flexible and on-time transportation of goods and passengers, in many cases spanning the 24-hour cycle”. 

The report also said the consensus was that fatigue was a significant factor in approximately 20% of commercial transport crashes. Surveys showed that more than 50% of long-haul drivers had at some time fallen asleep at the wheel. And in what it termed ‘the most conspicuous observation’, peak levels for accidents were found to be 10 times higher at night than daytime levels. 

So, has enough been done to make things safer over the past two decades? Has commercial pressure reduced for drivers? Unfortunately, the answer to both of these questions is no.

A foreseeable risk

The Department of Transport (DoT) for Western Australia defines fatigue as gradual loss of alertness that leads to occasional nodding off and then sleep. Drowsy drivers are more likely to have a serious crash by running off the road or having a head-on collision. 

The reasons for this are clear. As the National Safety Council (NSC) in the US says: “A driver might not even know when he or she is fatigued because signs of fatigue are hard to identify. Some people may also experience micro-sleeps – short, involuntary periods of inattention. In the four or five seconds a driver experiences micro-sleep, at highway speed, the vehicle will travel the length of a football field.”

The DoT also makes it clear that driver fatigue is a foreseeable risk for all businesses. It is an occupational hazard that must be managed by a safe system of work under occupational health and safety laws.

The four main causes of fatigue

The first step for employers and fleet managers is to understand more about tiredness. There are four main areas that have an impact – diet, health, lifestyle and work demands.

  1. The importance of diet

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in the US warns that missing meals or eating at irregular times is a common factor in fatigue. In particular, going to bed with an empty stomach or immediately after a heavy meal can interfere with sleep. Experts suggest that a light snack before bed may help you achieve more restful sleep.

  1. Health factors

There are many physical conditions that have an impact on a driver’s ability to stay awake. These may or may not have been disclosed to employers. Among the most common – and unlikely to be something an employer has any awareness of – are insomnia and sleep apnoea. Drivers may also have thyroid issues, diabetes, arthritis or a cold or influenza (medicines often have drowsiness as a side effect). In addition, Covid and long-Covid are two new factors to take into account. 

Furthermore, fatigue is a common symptom of anxiety, depression and seasonal affective disorder. As a fleet manager or employer, would you know if your drivers had these issues?

  1. Lifestyle

A European survey into Flemish truck drivers falling asleep at the wheel (one in three admitted to doing this) revealed that more than 40% were overweight and 26% were obese, another recognised cause of sleep problems. Furthermore, 9.2% of the truckers appeared to have an alcohol problem. The number of smokers among the truck drivers (46.5%) was also higher than the Flemish average (31.6%).

  1. Work demands

Businesses should be aware that studies consistently show that the groups most at risk from driver fatigue are young men, people working through the night and those who drive for a living.

What can employers and workers do to prevent driver fatigue on the job?

The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has issued the following advice:

  • Implement policies that set overtime limits and maximum allowable consecutive shifts.

  • Ensure sufficient staffing levels across operations.

  • Provide employee training on sleep health and fatigue management.

  • Implement a workplace sleep disorder screening and management programme.

  • Allow for rest breaks and napping during extended work shifts.

  • Give supervisors and workers fatigue-symptom checklists and encourage self-reporting.

  • Encourage peer monitoring of fatigue symptoms among co-workers.

  • Review data from monitoring systems to detect signs of possible fatigue episodes.

  • Consider using wearables such as an instrumented wristband to monitor driver fatigue.

  • Train incident investigators to assess the role of fatigue in incidents and near-miss incidents.

It’s also important to avoid common misconceptions – turning up the radio, drinking coffee and opening the window are not a cure for drowsiness. Employers should also remind drivers that they should ideally take a 10-45 minute nap when feeling drowsy. 

Even taking commercial pressures into account, there are areas where fleet and HR managers can make a significant difference. Educate your drivers on the risks, monitor their driving behaviours and work with them to ensure they are safe to drive. 

For the sake of your drivers and all road users, it’s time to tackle fatigue.

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