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Top Tips to Combat Truck Driver Fatigue and Distraction

Driving big rig carries a certain amount of risk even at the best of times, and we certainly are not in the best of times right now. Even when the road is clear and the truck driver is at their most alert, distractions like mobile phones and points of interest outside a vehicle can lead to a crash – sometimes fatal. We have seen many of these stories. While most truck drivers execute their job with the highest degree of professionalism, accidents happen. But can they be avoided?

Make no mistake about it. Truck driver fatigue and distraction are serious problems that result in significant road fatalities on US roads every year. It is estimated that nearly 10 percent of all fatal crashes involving fault on the part of the truck driver were because of truck driver fatigue. A full 15 percent of injury crashes can be traced back to distracted driving.

Consider that driving while on your phone for just two seconds is equivalent to 33 meters of blind driving. It is more than a problem. It’s a worrying trend that needs to be managed. Today, we are going to look at the impacts of truck driver fatigue and distraction, and outline how technology and changes at a company’s cultural level can be used to address both fatigue and distracted driving.

Driving Tired is Dangerous

The fact is this: Being fatigued significantly increases the risk of a crash. Tiredness can impair our ability to respond quickly and safely when a dangerous situation arises, and the results can be disastrous. Couple this with the fact that it is difficult to self-identify fatigue levels and the risk increases even more. So, while you may think you are fit to drive – the reality could be quite different. We are not always our own best judges in situations like these.

If you are experiencing fatigue symptoms, you need to pull over. Chances are you have experienced one or more fatigue symptoms while operating a commercial motor vehicle. Did you stop? Symptoms include:

  • Trouble focusing, or narrow attention span;
  • Lane drifting;
  • Slower reaction times;
  • Daydreaming and zoning out;
  • Nodding head, or struggling to keep eyes open, and
  • Frequent yawning as well as rubbing of eyes.

Truckers can also experience what is known as “micro-sleeps” behind the wheel without realizing it. This can happen when a driver becomes drowsy and involuntarily lapses into sleep that lasts between 2 to 15 seconds, greatly increasing the chances of a crash. If you have woken up suddenly to your head jerking, then you have experienced a micro-sleep. Micro-sleep is incredibly dangerous when barreling down the road with 80,000 pounds under your hands.

It is estimated that 83,000 crashes between 2005 and 2009 in the US were the direct result of fatigued driving. In fact, nobody is immune to the effects of driver fatigue. Commercial drivers are a high-risk group as they typically drive long distances, often at night, making them more susceptible to the effects of fatigue. Long-haul truck drivers must remain extra vigilant for this reason.

Why do Truck Drivers Get Fatigued?

There are two main causes of driver fatigue. The first is the quality and quantity of your last sleep. How much sleep did you last get, and did you sleep well? Another thing that can be problematic is driving during times you would normally sleep and sleeping when you would normally be awake.

When any of the above factors apply to your situation, it essentially means that your body is in sleep deficit (the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep). We each need to ensure that lost sleeping time is repaid back by getting more sleep. Until you can catch up on lost sleep, you are at greater risk of having a fatigue-related accident.

Fatigue related crashes are most likely to occur:

  • On long journeys or driving on monotonous roads, such as freeways;
  • Between the hours of 2am and 6am or between 2pm and 4pm (as a result of having eaten);
  • If you have taken medication that causes drowsiness;
  • After consuming alcohol;
  • When you have had less than your normal amount of sleep;
  • If you have an undiagnosed sleep condition (e.g. sleep apnea), or
  • After having worked long hours or after a night shift.

It is the truck driver’s responsibility to understand these factors and do everything they can to mitigate them. Fatigue should be the number one enemy.

Distraction is Deadly

Driver distraction is the diversion of attention away from driving toward another competing activity. Distracted driving has been identified as an emerging road safety issue and has been ranked by global road safety authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO), as a significant contributing factor to road crashes.

A distracted driver is a risk not only to themselves, but to their passengers and other road users too. Inattentive driving accounts for nearly 80% of all crashes and 65% of near misses. What’s more is that just 3 seconds of driver distraction can precede a collision. How many times have you looked away from the road for more than 3 seconds? Most likely everyone reading this blog article can lay claim to being distracted while driving.

And what is the number one cause of distracted driving? You might not be surprised. The use of mobile phones behind the wheel tops the list as the main cause of driver distraction. This is because a driver will have to take their eyes, mind and (in some cases) hands off the task of driving, which in turn increases the likelihood of a crash. Worryingly, 33% of US drivers ages 18 to 64 reported reading or writing text messages while driving even though 98% of adults agree that the practice is unsafe.

Other dangerous in-vehicle distractions include using or reaching for an object, interacting with other occupants, adjusting vehicle controls, rubbernecking and generally becoming lost in thought. Of the more than 65,000 people killed in car crashes during 2010 and 2011, one in ten were in crashes where at least one of the drivers was distracted. This is especially dangerous for truck drivers.

Truck drivers must always remain vigilant on the road. Sure, you may have items in the cab you need to grab, but you might need to wait until you are pulled off the road. There have been cases where a truck driver reaching for a cup of coffee caused a fatal accident.

Using Technology to Fight Fatigue

Several technologies are available on the market to assist in monitoring truck driver fatigue and distraction. One such example uses an in-cab sensor to detect signs of fatigue and distraction using algorithms. The in-cab sensor can detect eye closure, the position of a driver’s head (when it isn’t facing forward), drooping eyelids, and micro-sleeps.

When such events are detected, they trigger a real-time intervention process – an audible in-cab alarm, which can also be accompanied with vibrations of the driver’s seat. Once the event has been captured, the driver’s manager will also be notified of the incident and, if applicable, the manager can intervene further. This can be a game-changer for both real-time safety and potential coaching opportunities.

Even in scenarios where the driver is wearing sunglasses or glasses, there are technologies that use infrared sensors to track the driver’s eyes. The infra-red sensors also make it possible for night-time driver monitoring.

When choosing the technological solution that is right for your fleet, it is important to ensure that it is, accurate, effective, reliable, scalable, easy to use and fast to deploy.

In the past, technologies offered have been cost prohibitive but are now becoming more recognized and readily available. This, in turn, has made them more affordable. They are also easier to deploy across fleets – and more reliable. And as more companies bring on more systems, interoperability is less of a problem than it was before.

With the COVID-19 outbreak causing a huge spike in trucking spot market rates, there will be more truck drivers out on the roads than ever before. Now is the time to ensure you or your fleet operators are fully aware of the dangers of fatigue and distracted driving. Carrying essential supplies is important, but don’t let it cause you to operate when you are fatigued.

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