Preventing Drowsy Driving Crashes – Part I A Motor Carrier’s Duty

THIS PAST WEEKEND, the nation returned to Standard Time and set our clocks back one hour. Changes in waking time, coupled with the earlier onset of darkness, can throw off our body’s internal clock, making it difficult to get enough sleep. This sleep deprivation increases the risk of drowsy driving crashes.

Commercial drivers, who often experience disruptions to their natural sleep patterns by working night or long and irregular hours, are even more susceptible to the effects of fatigue and/or sleep deprivation.

Please use the occasion of the end of Daylight Saving Time and the National Sleep Foundation’s (NSF) Drowsy Driving Prevention Week (November 6-13), to learn what your company can do to help prevent your drivers from getting behind the wheel when they’re tired.

A Motor Carrier’s Responsibility

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) take a very clear stance against fatigued driving. §392.3 of the rules reads:

§392.3 Ill or fatigued operator.

No driver shall operate a commercial motor vehicle, and a motor carrier shall not require or permit a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle, while the driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, or so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, illness, or any other cause, as to make it unsafe for him/her to begin or continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle. However, in a case of grave emergency where the hazard to occupants of the commercial motor vehicle or other users of the highway would be increased by compliance with this section, the driver may continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle to the nearest place at which that hazard is removed.

Based on §392.3, motor carriers have a duty to prevent their drivers from driving fatigued. Carefully monitoring driving hours to ensure that all drivers are in compliance with Federal Hours of Service Regulations is a big step toward fulfilling that duty. You should note, however, that being compliant and being safe aren’t always one and the same.

Helpful Strategies

While sleep is the only true preventive measure against fatigue, there are some strategies your company may consider to help ensure that only alert and well-rested drivers are behind the wheel of your company’s vehicles:

• Conduct an analysis of company accident data to help determine underlying causes and what might be done to prevent similar occurrences in the future. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration suggests some common factors behind crashes involving a drowsy driver include: the crash occurs late at night or early in the morning; it is likely to be serious; a single vehicle leaves the roadway; the crash occurs on a high-speed road; the driver makes little or no effort to avoid a crash; the driver is alone in the vehicle.

• Establish scheduling procedures that minimize your drivers’ exposure to fatigue.

•Evaluate each trip for fatigue potential based on the season; time of day/night (including time zone changes); distance; rest stop locations; as well as weather, construction and road conditions.

• Take your drivers’ ages, sleep personalities (morning larks or night owls) and shift preferences into account when scheduling trips. Make sure that the drivers assigned to trips are matched based on previous driving schedules (not just Hours of Service), time and sleep preparation.

• Be particularly cognizant of driving schedules that may elevate fatigue, including but not limited to: frequent shift changes or shift inversions (flip-flopping schedules) which are disruptive to the body’s circadian cycle; repeated nights of driving; continuous driving between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.; shifts that begin between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m.; any combination of schedules that does not allow for at least two periods of night sleep (10 p.m. – 8 a.m. without work) after four or five periods of night driving; any combination of schedules that leads to extended mid-shift breaks (split shifts) in which early starts and late finishes are required (legal, but not safe); one-off trips in which a driver has to make an overnight run, but normally sleeps at night; and any combination of schedules in which driving occurs after 16 hour of wakefulness.

• Give drivers ample notice of their driving schedules so they can get sufficient sleep before each trip.

• Be attentive to how much you are asking drivers to do and have dispatchers look for signs that drivers may be too tired to drive.

• Reduce your vehicles’ speed settings or disconnect vehicles’ cruise control on activation of driving lights.

• Educate customers or shippers about how your company manages fatigue. When possible, provide options for changing trip times or delivery patterns, minimizing driver loading/unloading activities or using relay or driver teams to help manage fatigue risks.

• Develop a corporate culture that facilitates reduced driver fatigue by implementing a Fatigue Management and Training Program for all management, dispatch personnel, drivers and perhaps even drivers’ family members and/or significant others. Understanding the importance of quantity and quality of sleep and of biological rhythms and their effects on a person’s ability to perform as a driver are some of the best defenses in battling fatigue.

• Be aware of the possibility of sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and other illnesses that may have a negative impact on sleep. Drivers who are diagnosed with any of these disorders should follow the prescribed treatment plan, and your company should follow up with them to evaluate whether they are up to the task of driving.

Of course, combating fatigue is a shared responsibility between motor carriers and drivers. Next week, in Preventing Drowsy Driving Crashes – Part II – A Driver’s Duty, we will discuss some of the techniques drivers can implement both on and off the road to help make sure they are well-rested and alert each and every time they drive.