The list is long when it comes to hazards that can cause safety risks for the commercial trucking industry, and driver fatigue is a condition that tops that list. Fatigue can affect all drivers, however commercial truck drivers are especially at risk due to their long and often irregular work hours.

Fatigue should not be confused with sleepiness, as it is a very different feeling. Fatigue occurs when a person is suffering symptoms such as headaches, heavy eyelids, frequent yawning, lane drifting, erratic speed, misjudging traffic situations, irritability and/or daydreaming. In contrast, sleepiness predominantly occurs twice a day, once after lunch and once typically around bedtime. It is a pleasant feeling, and is linked closely to an individual’s circadian rhythm. Despite common misperceptions, sleepiness and fatigue are not interdependent; a driver can be fatigued but not sleepy and sleepy but not fatigued.

Federally mandated hours of service regulations are in place aimed at preventing driver fatigue among the trucking industry, however simply being compliant with these regulations is not enough and does not mean drivers are safe. A truck driver can be sound asleep at the wheel and simultaneously be 100% compliant with regulations.

Research from the National Sleep Foundation, Arlington, Va., shows people are at higher risk of succumbing to driver fatigue between midnight and 6 a.m., which happens to be a common time for truck drivers to be on the road. People also incorrectly assume that the further a driver travels, the more likely he/she is to become fatigued. According to Omnitracs Analytics Fatigue Modeling software, short-haul nightshift drivers typically have the highest level of fatigue risk, and long-haul drivers have the lowest. Collisions related to fatigue and sleepiness are also often more severe when compared to other crashes, as the driver’s brain is mostly disconnected from the driving task at the point of impact. The outcome could be a run-off-the-road into the median, hitting a guard rail or at worst a high-speed rear-end collision.

Without a doubt, driver fatigue is a dangerous condition that can have a detrimental and even catastrophic effect on a driver and the business. Despite the chilling stats, driver fatigue is a condition that can be managed and curtailed to a point where drivers can identify the signs of fatigue, pull over and avoid the risk of collision. 

Understanding, educating and managing sleep habits

The leading culprit behind driver fatigue is disrupted and lack of sleep—both quantity and quality. Understanding, educating and managing proper sleeping habits is the first line of defense fleets can take against driver fatigue. Because sleep needs vary from person to person, it’s impossible to offer a specific number of hours a night all drivers need to sleep. However, drivers can learn the signs and symptoms that indicate they need more sleep and then take actions to improve their sleep habits. Trouble staying alert during monotonous situations, irritability and difficulty concentrating or remembering facts are all indicators that a driver isn’t getting enough good-quality sleep.

In addition to managing sleep, fleets can educate their drivers on other habits that can impact fatigue levels, including timing of caffeine consumption, eating nutritious meals at appropriate times throughout the day and strategically timing naps mid-shift.

Implementation of fleet management technology

Companies are also increasingly relying on fleet management technology that logs service hours and predictive analytics to ensure driver safety.

For example, Dayton Freight Lines, Inc., a private, less-than truckload freight carrier based in Dayton, Ohio, maintains 45 service centers in the Midwest and offers shippers 1- or 2-day service to thousands of points throughout 11 states. With 32% of the fleet consisting of line-haul drivers, Dayton Freight’s drivers typically work at night, sleep during the day and operate day-cab tractors without sleepers. Its drivers are behind the wheel for extended periods of time and often start work later in the evening and drive through sunrise. As a result, the carrier had the vast majority of line-haul drivers at risk of fatigue and exposure to fatigue-related incidents. Even though fatigue-related incidents are few and far between, Dayton Freight recognized the serious safety risks its drivers were exposed to and sought a solution to help combat fatigue. The company adopted Omnitracs Analytics’ Sleep Management Program, which predicts sleep scenarios using Omnitracs’ Hours of Service onboard application. 

As part of the technology implementation, Omnitracs Analytics, Dallas, Texas, held a series of educational workshops for Dayton Freight drivers and managers, which included tips for proper sleep techniques while on the road. Drivers were taught how to better understand their internal body clock, recognize the body’s natural warning signs and symptoms of fatigue and effectively time caffeine consumption and mid-shift naps.  

A key component of the workshops, for drivers and fleet management alike, was learning how to leverage electronic hours of service data and predictive models to better prevent fatigue-related incidents. Using the company’s electronic hours of service log data and Omnitracs Analytics’ predictive modeling, managers can predict the most likely sleep scenario from any combination of work and rest. With this information, they can then quickly identify risk and accident severity probability, and determine which drivers need more rest and time away from behind the wheel. The data can also be leveraged to strategically schedule drivers to run a productive and safe operation with the lowest levels of fatigue risk.

With just over 50% of line-haul drivers completing the training, 94% of Dayton Freight’s drivers reported increased alertness behind the wheel, an improvement in the quality and the length of their sleep and an improvement in their overall lifestyle. Furthermore, the company has not had any major accidents that can be attributed to driver fatigue since implementing.

In the refrigerated and frozen food industry, safety-conscious fleets like Dayton Freight understand that they must go beyond compliance to safeguard their company from fatigue-related risks. Sleep management education is key to adjusting daily habits such as eating and caffeine intake to stave off fatigue. Short-haul fleets that creatively schedule shifts can also see significant reductions in the risk of driver fatigue.

Tapping into advanced fleet management technology solutions, such as predictive analytics that leverage a fleet’s hours of service, can help fleets go that extra mile in keeping their drivers safe, while still maintaining a productive and efficient business.