Truck driver fatigue

Truck driver fatigue

Truck Driver fatigue is a serious issue that is often underestimated by non professional drivers. We've all seen the road signs, "tiredness kills, take a break". In a recent survey, we asked you the Blue Arrow driving community, for advice and tips on fatigue management for truck drivers. We asked questions relating to coping with, reducing and avoiding fatigue as well as how to balance getting enough rest with ensuring that deliveries are made on time. 

The Blue Arrow driving community are always enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge, tips, tricks and advice and it was reassuring to hear that Truck Driver fatigue was a topic that had been given a lot of thought. 

Truck Driver Fatigue Accident Statistics

Statistics show that at least 300 people are killed each year as a result of drivers falling asleep at the wheel and around four in ten tiredness-related crashes involve someone driving a commercial vehicle. 

These Truck Driver fatigue statistics make for uncomfortable reading, but the reality is that they might only be scratching the surface of the issue, it is not always clear if a crash was caused by tiredness and so the actual figures could be higher. 

Sleep Related Vehicle Accidents (SRVAs) have been found to have a greater likelihood of resulting in someone being killed or seriously injured than most accidents due to the sleeping driver’s inability to apply the brakes before impact.

Professional drivers are particularly at risk from tiredness because they typically spend much longer hours at the wheel. Drivers trying to fight off sleep often experience ‘microsleeps’, where they are nodding off for anywhere between two and 30 seconds at a time, often without realising or remembering it. This is more than enough to cause a fatal crash. 

Truck Driver fatigue facts

Did you know; A driver who nods off for just three or four seconds on a motorway would have covered the length of a football pitch with closed eyes and a 30 second nap while travelling at 60mph covers more than half a mile.

Did you know; If you cause a death while driving tired, you can be charged with causing death by dangerous driving. The maximum penalty is 14 years in prison.

What is fatigue

The terms fatigue, sleepiness and drowsiness are often used interchangeably to refer to a feeling of tiredness and a desire to sleep due to a decrease in mental and physical performance capacity.

Causes of driver fatigue

During a study into the causes of driver fatigue, Brown (1994) identified 5 causes of Truck Driver fatigue:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor sleep
  • Time-on-task (the time spent driving)
  • Monotonous tasks
  • Individual characteristics and genetics including medical conditions

For Truck Drivers, the time-on-task should be seen as the total working time as professional drivers often perform many more tasks than the job of driving alone. Long working hours often go together with an early start, night driving and reduced sleep all of which have a dramatic impact on Truck Driver fatigue levels.

Driving at night

Night driving is recognised as a major risk factor for traffic accidents. In one large study involving 80 drivers who had completed more than 200,000 miles of driving following one of four driving schedules, researchers reported that driver alertness was more consistently related to time of day than to cumulative time-on-task (i.e. time spent driving). 

Despite evidence to support the argument that time of day has a greater effect on truck driver fatigue levels than previously recognised, current driving legislation does not take into consideration the interaction between continuous driving duration and the time of day. It is therefore important for Truck Drivers to understand the correlation and pay attention to how they feel, how tired they are and if their concentration levels are dropping so they can take more regular breaks if needed.

Driving without awareness (DWA)

A phenomenon which is sometimes confused with driver fatigue, but which is in fact quite different is ‘driving without awareness’ (DWA), also known as Highway Hypnosis. DWA is where the driver begins driving on autopilot, paying no active attention to the driving task. At a certain moment, the driver ‘awakes’ and cannot remember actually driving the previous few minutes.

DWA occurs due to the monotony and repetitiveness of the driving task, not necessarily because drivers are tired from time on task, lack of sleep, poor quality sleep or the time of day. Unlike micro-sleep during which the eyes are closed for at least 2 seconds, during DWA the eyes stay open.

Researchers, Karrer et al. (2006) asked a representative sample of 83 German drivers to perform a monotonous driving task on a motorway for 2 hours to identify the symptoms of driving without awareness. The study found that driving without awareness was displayed in 5 ways:

  • Staring into space
  • Staring at the road
  • Head moves upwards or downwards
  • Eyes start a rolling movement
  • Squinting 

It is important to stay alert and keep your brain active while you are driving to minimise the likelihood of experiencing DWA. Making sure you are paying attention to the road and other road users will help to combat the risk of driving without awareness on monotonous journeys. Listening to audiobooks, podcasts and music will all help to keep your mind active and focused on the task in hand but taking frequent rest breaks will always be the safest and most effective option.  

What impact does Truck Driver fatigue have on their abilities?

Driving for relatively long periods in a monotonous driving environment has a clear negative effect on a driver’s abilities and reactions. All of the following occur during Truck Driver fatigue:

  • Reduced reaction time
  • Vulnerability to distraction
  • Reduced vigilance
  • Impaired judgement
  • Impaired higher mental functioning
  • Inability to deal with the unexpected
  • Poor decision making
  • Greater risk taking
  • Reduced peripheral visual field

Taking frequent breaks will counteract the affects that long periods of monotonous driving could have. In 2014, a real road driving study was conducted with thirty-three commercial drivers. The impact of continuous driving time on driving performance and the effect of rest time on the recovery of the driving performance was studied.

The analysis revealed that driving time had a significant effect on fatigue and driving performance. After 2 hours of driving, both fatigue and driving performance began to deteriorate and after 4 hours of driving, all of the driving performance indicators changed significantly except for depth perception. 

Adequate rest time eliminated the negative effects of fatigue to varying degrees. A 15-minute rest allowed drivers to recover from a two-hour driving task but the rest period needed to be prolonged to 30 minutes for 3 to 4 hours of continuous driving.

Truck Driver fatigue countermeasures - myth or magic?

If you drive when tired, it is impossible to stop yourself eventually nodding off at the wheel. Despite popular belief, winding down the window or turning up the radio does not prevent sleep. 

A 2012 study investigated the effects of two of the most commonly used countermeasures against driver sleepiness - opening the window and listening to music. 

In total, 24 individuals participated in the study. 8 participants drove without countermeasures as a control group while sixteen participants received intermittent 10-min intervals of an open window (2 cm opened); and listening to music, during both day and night driving on an open motorway. 

Extended blink duration was used as the measure for sleepiness throughout the study. 

Researchers found that listening to music had only a minor effect on sleepiness compared with the bigger effects that night driving and driving duration had. An open window had no effect on sleepiness at all. Therefore, despite their popularity, opening the window and listening to music cannot be recommended as effective countermeasures against Truck Driver fatigue.

What does work? 

Fatigue management for truck drivers always comes down to sleep and rest. It is imperative that drivers have a good night’s sleep before any journey. Doctors recommend we get eight hours’ sleep a night to keep our bodies and minds refreshed and alert. This is critical for safe driving.

If you feel tired you should stop in a safe place as soon as possible; the government recommends drivers take a break at least every two hours. 

Professional Truck Drivers have their working hours controlled by law and are required to take breaks totalling at least 45 minutes in eight-and-a-half hours driving, followed by a break of at least 30 minutes: an average of nearly 10 minutes’ rest for every hour driving. 

If you wake up in the morning feeling exhausted, struggle to stay awake, snore or wake up struggling to breathe, you may suffer from a relatively common condition called sleep apnoea. Sufferers are at a significantly increased risk of crashing due to fatigue. The condition is fully treatable, so if you experience symptoms, stop driving immediately and see a doctor.

Never feel under pressure to ignore feelings of fatigue and push on through to make a delivery on time. Your safety is paramount and comes before anything else so if you feel tired, distracted or that you are losing concentration, find somewhere safe to stop and take well deserved a break.

Staying up to date with industry news and information like this is a great way to take control and maximise your career. Take a look at our ‘Your Rights’ page for more information.