Driver Fatigue: The Tired Tale

This week we start a new short series of blog posts on the ongoing and serious issue of driver fatigue.

  1. The Problem:

As you go through your work day notice the folks nodding off on the bus, the co-worker snoozing with heavy lids during a meeting, the people lined up at the coffee shop for their much needed mid-afternoon caffeine injection. Like them, but at increased risk of catastrophic injury, are the employees who are just as sleepy but are behind the wheel of a vehicle.

* Note to employers – when Driving Fatigue may affect a person’s ability to drive safely it must be identified, assessed and controlled like any other life threatening hazard in the workplace.

Sleepiness, and its deadly brother; driver fatigue, may be on the rise. According to the National Sleep Foundation in its 2009 Sleep in America poll, 20% of Americans reported that they averaged fewer than six hours of sleep per night – compared to the 13% reported in 2001.

“I do think that perhaps the No.1 sleep problem in America is willful sleep limitation. People are working too hard and purposely limiting themselves to six hours when they should be getting seven or eight,” says Lisa Shives, MD, founder of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Ill., and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

For employees that drive, this problem has become such an epidemic that the term ‘driver fatigue’ is now well recognized within the commercial vehicle marketplace. Driver fatigue specifically result in poor judgment, slower reactions to driving events and a marked decrease in necessary skills, all of which may result in a loss of vehicle control and a crash.

The majority of people function at their highest capacity during the day. We work best in the day and sleep at night. Our natural circadian rhythms, or “the body clock”, are the natural rhythms that are repeated approximately every 24 hours. Sleeping patterns, body temperature, hormone levels, digestion and other functions are all regulated. Night-time or early morning work schedules and long work days all disrupt the body clock. The impact of the work schedule and any other work related stress on the quality and quantity of sleep leads to a build-up of sleep debt – a drop in alertness and performance that in the fleet world leads to a high likelihood of a crash.

The risk of falling asleep at the wheel increases when driving occurs at times when drivers would normally be asleep, particularly in the pre-dawn hours. There is also an increased crash risk during the mid-afternoon or after-lunch hours.

A significant amount of research, regulations, best practices and emerging technologies are focused on the commercial vehicle market. The change in hours of service and other regulatory practices are specifically targeted at driver fatigue in the commercial vehicle space. Commercial vehicle drivers may work more than 12 hours per day and have a work week of over 70 hours which makes them particularly susceptible to fatigue.

Later in the week we will look at the transition to solutions for the problem of driver fatigue