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Is Driving Drowsy an Occupational Hazard for Truck Drivers?

Below is a guest blog by Ben DiMaggio, a sleep researcher.   My law firm deals with a lot of "drowsy driving" cases where truckers and regular drivers work too long and drive too late- often with deadly consequences.  So when Ben from offfered to do a guest blog on sleep deprived driving, I took him up on it!

Before we get into Ben's work, some basic facts on how dangerous sleep deprived driving can be:
Drowsy driving is a massive problem: A CDC study of drowsy driving found that it was a factor in 72,000 accidents and 800 deaths in the United States in just one year.
Commercial drivers are especially dangerous: Many different groups are at high risk for driving while drowsy, including teenagers and shift workers. However, commercial drivers who spend long days and nights behind the wheel are especially dangerous, with 13% of large truck drivers involved in crashes reporting feeling sleepy while driving.
Drowsy driving can be prevented: Drowsy driving is one of the most preventable causes of car accidents. Just a few easy changes to a driver’s sleep schedule can dramatically reduce the risk of falling asleep behind the wheel. In some cases, drivers who feel drowsy after a full night’s sleep may need to be evaluated for sleep disorders.

Take it away, Ben:   

Is Driving Drowsy an Occupational Hazard for Truck Drivers?

Mile after mile, commercial truck drivers push to meet deadlines and get their loads delivered on time. As a business, the trucking industry relies on moving the greatest volume of goods in the shortest amount of time. However, to do so, many drivers get on the road while sleep deprived putting themselves and other drivers in danger.

Take a Look at Sleep Deprivation

Lack of sleep wreaks havoc on the mind and body, yet many people get far less than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Sleep deprivation can cause:

  • mood changes, including increased aggression

  • increased risk of diabetes and heart disease

  • reduced immune system efficiency

  • changes in appetite

  • increased blood pressure

  • increased risk of heart attack and stroke

These health risks are daunting, but even more frightening are the effects on the brain and what they mean for fatigued drivers.

  • Memory: Forgetting the last few miles driven is a form of short-term memory loss that’s common with sleep deprivation.

  • Decision-Making Skills: Driving requires a series of decision-making tasks. When tired, those abilities go down putting drivers at risk for poor or slow decisions in an emergency.

  • Reaction Times: Neurons, the cells that send signals in the brain, slow down, making reaction and thinking times slower as well. That means less ability to react to road conditions or hazards.

Truck Drivers Pushing the Limits

What makes sleep-deprived truck drivers so scary? The large, heavy vehicles they drive. When passenger cars get in accidents with commercial trucks, the resulting injuries tend to be more severe. Car accident injuries often involve brain, neck, and back injuries that can permanently change lives. That kind of risk deserves some special attention.

Many drivers are paid by the mile, making them far more likely to push the number of miles driven in a day to make ends meet. They may also be encouraged to keep timelines that promote skipping sleep in favor of an on-time delivery.

There are regulations in place that help drivers get better sleep. Drivers can only drive 70 hours per week with an 11-hour limit of drive time per day. There are also required rest periods each day and an extended 34-hour rest period before a new work week can begin. But drivers and companies are tempted to push against regulations.

The result--fatigued drivers who try to meet the requirements of their occupation. GPS trackers are often used to monitor miles to be sure drivers take their mandatory rest periods while other companies rely on their drivers to monitor themselves. Most truck drivers do their best, but the temptation to drive while fatigued increases when the pressure to deliver goes up and money is on the line for the driver and the company.

Even if drivers follow the regulations exactly, they might not get the kind of rest they need for restorative sleep. A comfortable mattress, consistent bedtime, controlled temperatures, and silence can be hard to find while sleeping in the cab of a truck or motel.

Better Sleep and Healthier Drivers Mean Fewer Accidents

Nearly 72,000 accidents each year are related to drowsy driving. Recognizing the signs of sleep deprivation and taking action can help. Pulling over at a rest area or gas station for a short nap or walk can be enough to give the body an extra boost. When it comes to safety, sleep has to be a priority for drivers and the companies for which they work.  

Ben DiMaggio
About the Author: 
Ben DiMaggio is a researcher for the sleep science and health organization Ben specializes in investigating how sleep, and sleep deprivation, affect public health and safety. Ben lives in Portland, Oregon. His worst sleep habit is checking his email right before bed.
Tuck Sleep Foundation is a community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources. Tuck has been featured on NPR, Lifehacker, Radiolab and is referenced by many colleges/universities and sleep organizations across the web. 1.800.906.5984


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