Want to Improve Driver Safety? Improve Driver Health as Well as Driving Behavior!

Want to Improve Driver Safety? Improve Driver Health as Well as Driving Behavior!

If increasing the safety and productivity of your fleet is a priority, driver health should also be very high on your list of concerns.

Truck drivers are at exceptionally high risk for lifestyle-related health problems.

  • While an alarming 69% of Americans are obese or overweight, the long hours of sitting, poor access to exercise, and limited availability of healthy foods on the road result in an even more shocking 90% rate of overweight/obesity among drivers.
  • A recent National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study found that 88% percent of long-haul truck drivers had at least one risk factor (hypertension, smoking, and obesity) for chronic disease, compared to only 54% of the general U.S. adult working population.
  • High rates of heart disease, diabetes, sleep apnea and others conditions combine to reduce the average lifespan of long-haul commercial truck drivers to 61 years, a full 17 years less than the overall average.

Sleep deprivation is a key factor that contributes to – and may even cause — many of these issues. During sleep, the brain rebalances both the immune and endocrine systems. That’s why irregular shiftwork that contributes to drivers’ sleep deprivation and poor sleep patterns is also implicated in ills including depression, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer – conditions and diseases that increase rates of disability and mortality.

These serious and significant driver health issues weigh down fleets with high costs for health care, disability and life insurance, absenteeism, and driver turnover, in addition to the thorny ethical issues. They also have a direct and substantial impact on driving safety and fleet performance.

93% of all accidents are caused by drivers, with many linked to poor reaction times and fatigue. Recent research indicates that driving tired is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. In fact, the NIOSH study found that 27% of long-haul drivers sleep six or fewer hours per night and that 34 percent have nodded off while driving. These unhealthy behaviors create safety risks for drivers themselves and the people with whom they share the road. possibly because fatigue limits people’s ability to learn and to accurately interpret events – skills that are essential for reacting quickly and appropriately in dynamic situations. Poor sleep negatively impact cognition, response times, perception, attention, memory and alertness, making accidents still more likely.

In an unfortunate cycle, some of the health conditions that may be triggered or exacerbated by ongoing sleep disruption, as well as the medications used to treat them, themselves cause fatigue and drowsiness. Alcohol, caffeine and many prescription drugs can have long-term negative impacts on sleep, leading people to wake up frequently in the middle of their sleep, or to wake feeling tired and poorly rested.

What can fleets do to help keep their drivers well-rested and healthy?
  1. Institute wellness programs that help drivers eat better and exercise more, and find positive ways to encourage participation
  2. Implement proven driving behavior solutions that make safe on-road behaviors second nature for your drivers
  3. Develop an effective change management program to support drivers and create incentives for safe, alert driving
  4. Equip vehicles with warning systems that keep drivers alert and warn them of dangerous situations
  5. Test your drivers for sleep apnea and make sure those who test positive are treated
  6. Make efforts to keep shifts regular and reasonable
  7. Subsidize exercise equipment that can be taken on the road
  8. Enforce compliance with hours of service regulations to ensure that drivers are not driving tired
  9. Build in a social support structure that helps drivers stay on track with wellness efforts. Make support for wellness a part of the manager-driver conversation.

Keeping drivers healthy and driving safely is a win-win proposition for drivers, their families, and the fleets that employ them. Let’s all work together to make it happen!