Asleep Behind the Wheel: What’s Causing Fatigue Related Accidents?

Although the frequency of trucking accidents are relatively low compared to non-commercial crashes, the damaging effects of a semi-truck wreck are exponentially higher. The sheer size and inertia of an 18-wheeler far outweigh regular vehicles on the road, which typically don’t stand a chance against their much larger counterparts.

According to the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety’s website, truck crashes kill more than 5,000 passengers each year and injure nearly 150,000 more on domestic roadways. More recently, nearly one-quarter of passenger vehicle fatalities have been the result of multi-vehicle collisions involving a large truck. The alarming nature of these figures has sparked a discussion as to how crashes can be prevented and what measures need to be taken to do so.

Fatigue a major impact of crashes

Before any major regulations can be passed, the root cause of the problem needs to be addressed. As the country continues to rely heavily on its complex shipping infrastructure, companies are taking on more business to keep pace with growing demand. As a result, drivers are now being asked to log longer hours behind the wheel, which creates a tighter schedule and increases the need to meet deadlines on a regular basis. An unfortunate byproduct of the rise in demand has seen truck drivers losing out on precious hours of rest, which is much needed when driving a multi-ton vehicle long distances.

A recent study published in the scientific journal SLEEP characterized sleep apnea as a major catalyst in the majority of commercial driver accidents, noting fatigue and excessive daytime sleepiness as two side effects of obstructive sleep apnea. Among single-vehicle accidents on domestic roadways, nearly 18 percent involved drivers who admitted to falling asleep behind the wheel, while investigators found that half of accidents since 2003 were fatigue-related.

Measures being taken to ensure safety

A handful of factors contribute to driver fatigue besides increased demand, a few of which include sleep deprivation, poor sleep hygiene, travel, shift work, drugs, alcohol and sleep medications. Other disorders such as sleep apnea are also common amongst overweight truck drivers.

It’s becoming an unfortunate reality that U.S. freight haulers are suffering from growing workloads, so industry leaders and federal legislators are taking measures to combat these issues. For example, new technology has recently been developed to help keep tabs on drivers while they’re on long road trips. In-cab cameras are being installed so companies have video evidence of whether their drivers are falling asleep behind the wheel.

Policymakers are also trying to play their part in enhancing driver safety but are getting pushback from the industry. Commercial operators are reluctant to accept regulations on sleep, especially in the wake of growing demand, and government interference with driver hours may equate to underwhelmed bottom lines. However, despite widespread disapproval, The New York Times recently reported that federal legislators reduced the maximum workweek hours from 82 to 70 in 2013. Drivers who reach the new limit can only hit the road after a minimum 34-hour resting period, which must include at least two stops between 1 am and 5 am. The aim of the new regulations is to ensure that drivers get at least two nights rest each week and a 30-minute break during their maximum 11-hour workday.

As demand further increases within the trucking industry, it’s likely that drivers will continue to push the limits in terms of workable hours. However, new technology and further proposed legislation requiring industry participants to monitor the safety and health of their drivers are helping enhance road safety for those behind the wheel.

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