The Drowsy Driver Problem

Droopy eyelids. Yawning. Turning up the radio or opening a window to stay awake. Caffeine binge. Every driver fights fatigue at some point. Many make the trip without incident. Some simply change to a more alert driver. Others pull into a rest stop and nap.

Unfortunately, this does not work for far too many drivers. And the results are often deadly.

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conservatively estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year. This results in an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and $12.5 billion in monetary losses.” (Drowsy Driving – Stay Alert, Arrive Safe)

Further, survey results give even more detail and show just how much of a problem driver fatigue is.

  • 60% of adult drivers (about 168 million) drove drowsy in 2004.
  • 37% of adult drivers (103 million) fell asleep at the wheel.
  • 4% of adult drivers (about 11 million) had an accident or near-accident because they fell asleep or were too tired while driving.

Most at risk for sleep-related crashes are young men, adults with children and shift workers. More than a quarter of workers surveyed say they drive drowsy to/from work a few days a month, 12% a few days a week, and 4% almost every day.

Professional Drivers

Those who likely struggle the most with driver fatigue are professional drivers, like long-haul truck drivers and heavy equipment operators. In fact, drowsiness is a truck driver’s number one nemesis, according to Technology Tackles the Drowsy Driver Problem.

“More than 90% of long-haul truck accidents are caused by human error – the vast majority confirmed to be fatigue related.”

Professional Truck Driver

Also for professional drivers, there’s the added pressure of time constraints from delivery times and performance expectations of employers.

“Many truck drivers are paid by the mile or the load and are under tremendous pressure to deliver the load as quickly as possible in order to make ends meet personally.” (The Dangers of Driver Fatigue in Semi Trucks)

Causes & Effect

The most common causes of worker fatigue involve a combination of individual physiology and choices/habits. That’s things like an individual’s natural circadian rhythm (wake/eat/sleep cycle); sleep, diet and exercise choices; work shift; physical and mental exertion; and overall workload.

“The effects of fatigue include slower reaction times, reduced motor skills and decreased coordination as well as an increase in risky behavior, decrease in motivation and an overall reduction in performance.” (Reducing Fatigue Risk)

For many, the causes of driver fatigue likely come as no surprise. What’s probably a shock is how much fatigue affects driver and how many drivers it affects. Perhaps the best way to fully understand its impact is by comparing driver fatigue to drunk driving.

“There is now scientific evidence that suggests when we’re tired (or mentally fatigued) our ability to perform the simplest of tasks is impaired to the same level as if we were legally intoxicated.” (Reducing Fatigue Risk)

Fortunately, a combination of driver habits and lifestyle changes along with comprehensive workplace programs can successfully reduce the accidents caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel.

Truck Driver CB Radio

The Drowsy Driver Solution

A variety of technology serves to help manage driver fatigue. Those include:

  • Surveys — Help determine the extent of fatigue problems, level of worker knowledge and potential solutions.
  • Software — Allows for data management as well as for support systems when driver fatigue is indicated.
  • Wearables — Can track not just the status of drivers but also of workers all over the job site to help measure fatigue and collect information to allow for risk management.
  • Detection — Includes in-cab monitors, like console-mounted cameras to track eye behavior and head movements, with alarms.

Also being developed is technology to monitor driver heart rate, which slows when an individual is sleepy, that can be installed in the seat.

Caterpillar calls these solutions, “when utilized together and supported by a culture of fatigue intervention and employee assistance,” a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS). In other words, they insist on the importance of not using just technology alone but as a tool to train and educate workers.

Driver Habit & Lifestyle

Experts warn, however, that any solution or system a workplace implements only helps during work hours.

“[An FRMS] may capture and mitigate the symptom of fatigue, namely falling asleep, but it will not necessarily impact the decisions that are made about behaviors related to sleep, fatigue and alertness outside of work.” (Caterpillar)

This is where driver habit and lifestyle come into play and must partner with what the workplace does. Normal driver fatigue comes from three categories of what Amerisafe defines as “stress categories.”

  1. Physical factors such as temperature and vibration.
  2. Physiological factors such as poor or inadequate sleep, drugs, and alcohol, or irregular eating habits.
  3. Psychological factors such as anger, fear, and frustration.

Man Driving Eating Unhealthy

Alleviating driver fatigue caused by these factors involves a generally healthy lifestyle as well as establishing habits that can partner with the goal of less fatigue. Tips for developing these habits and lifestyle include:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet.
  • Establish a comfortable sleeping environment.
  • Get regular exercise and reduce excess weight.
  • Integrate time management techniques to reduce overload.
  • Reduce caffeine, quit smoking and avoid alcohol.

The Complete Picture

Much of what prevents driver fatigue is logical. Get a good night’s sleep. Don’t travel more than eight to ten hours a day. Take regular breaks. Share the driving if possible. Yet, for those who work behind the wheel for a living, the problem is much more significant.

Federal safety rules restrict hours of driving for those who operate trucks for a living. This is certainly one piece of the puzzle in preventing accidents caused by driver fatigue. Technology along with driver habits and lifestyle are additional pieces. So are employer fatigue management programs. Together, these pieces complete the picture of the most successful way to fight driver fatigue and ultimately save lives.