How to Manage Truck Driver Fatigue: Ensuring Safety Behind the Wheel

Graphic of a truck driver falling asleep at the wheel

Truck drivers, often regarded as the unsung heroes of the road, are the backbone of road freight and logistics. Their job is to facilitate the transportation of large quantities of heavy goods or materials from suppliers to clients at their designated destinations. Operating within a global market of more than $2.5 trillion, freight drivers are the ones who ensure timely deliveries, safeguard the integrity of cargo and sustain the efficiency of the entire distribution network.

Being a truck driver is not easy. In their demanding profession, freight operators face numerous risks on the road, ranging from unpredictable traffic and adverse weather conditions to mechanical failures and distracted driving. One of the most significant and potentially lethal hazards they can experience is driver fatigue, which compromises their alertness and significantly increases the likelihood of accidents. At least 13% of serious truck crashes in the USA can be associated with truck driver fatigue, while in Europe falling asleep at the wheel accounts for approximately 20% of commercial road transport crashes.

Throughout the year, there are various events that highlight this issue, including Distracted Driving Awareness Month in April, the annual Lifesavers National Conference on Highway Safety Priorities, also in April, and Drowsy Driving Prevention Week in November. In recognition of these events, this blog examines the underlying causes of truck driver fatigue, outlines existing regulations aimed at mitigating its risks and explores how adopting innovative strategies and technologies can prevent fatigue-related accidents in the transportation sector.

Understanding Truck Driver Fatigue and Its Impact on Road Safety

Truck driver fatigue is a condition of physical and mental exhaustion that impairs a driver’s capacity to safely operate a commercial vehicle. In this state of drowsiness, drivers experience significantly slower reaction times and seriously impaired decision-making capabilities. They become easily distracted and may even fall asleep at the wheel.

There are many factors that contribute to truck driver fatigue. These include extended hours on the road, irregular sleep patterns and stress caused by meeting tight deadlines. The resulting physical and mental strains pose serious risks, increasing the likelihood of accidents that put both the driver and other road users at risk.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drowsy driving—operating a motor vehicle while cognitively impaired due to lack of sleep—causes approximately 100,000 crashes annually in the US, leading to nearly 800 deaths and 50,000 injuries every year. However, experts argue that these numbers are significantly underestimated due to the inherent difficulty in detecting driver fatigue as a cause of accidents during police investigations, especially if a vehicle is not instrumented for the purpose. AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety offers a more genuine insight into the actual figures, estimating over 328,000 drowsy driving crashes annually. These result in the staggering nearly 110,000 injuries and 6,400 fatalities each year.

Truck driver fatigue statistics

In the trucking segment, there were 5,936 fatalities and more than 160,000 injuries in 2022 involving large truck accidents, according to the latest Overview of Motor Vehicle Traffic Crashes by the NHTSA. In their challenging work environment, 65% of truck drivers report that they often or sometimes feel drowsy while driving and nearly half admit to falling asleep behind the wheel. Beyond injuries and fatalities, the financial impact in the sector is profound. The total cost of fatigue-related trucking accidents is estimated at $20 billion annually, encompassing expenses for medical bills, property damage and lost productivity.

Top 10 Causes and Contributing Factors to Truck Driver Fatigue

Given the significant human and financial toll of truck driver fatigue, organizations must understand and take into account its root causes and contributing factors when developing effective safety strategies. Here are the top 10 factors that health and safety practitioners should consider when creating and implementing proactive measures within their safety management programs:

A list of the top causes and contributing factors to truck driver fatigue
  • Long hours of driving: Extended driving without adequate breaks reduces alertness and slows down reaction times. Studies show that crash risks triple after the eleventh hour of driving, prompting regulations to cap daily driving hours in the trucking industry at 11 hours. One break over 11 hours decreases the likelihood of a crash during a trip by 68%, while taking two and three breaks cuts this risk drastically, reducing the odds to 83% and 85% respectively.
  • Inadequate rest and sleep: Insufficient sleep and irregular sleep patterns disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm, causing fatigue and impaired cognitive function. Being awake for 18 hours is comparable to driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent, posing a significant risk of accidents.
  • Monotonous or repetitive tasks: Performing repetitive tasks for extended periods can lead to mental fatigue, with drivers more susceptible to errors behind the wheel.
  • Irregular work schedules: The unpredictability of not having a set routine can increase stress levels and reduce overall sleep quality, leading to impaired alertness and heightened risk on the road.
  • Stress and mental fatigue: Stress from tight deadlines, traffic, challenging weather and delivering goods in perfect condition can cause mental fatigue, impacting decision-making and accident risks. A survey by DAT Freight & Analytics reveals that 75% of truck drivers consider their job physically and emotionally stressful.
  • Medical conditions and sleep disorders: Truck drivers often experience musculoskeletal problems and sleep disorders. They are also at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and obesity. 70% of long-haul truckers in the USA are obese with increased risks of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. Additionally, 28% have sleep apnea, potentially contributing to fatigue, while extended time away from family leads to depression in 15-27% of freight drivers.
  • Use of medications that cause drowsiness: Some medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, can cause drowsiness and impair driving. A study by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) shows that 17% of truck drivers involved in crashes had used over-the-counter drugs.
  • Poor diet and hydration: Dehydration and scarce food options can significantly diminish a driver’s alertness by causing blood sugar fluctuations and nutritional deficiencies, all of which contribute to decreased cognitive function and increased fatigue on the road.
  • Lack of physical activity: Sedentary lifestyles and lack of regular exercise can cause fatigue and decreased stamina, lowering drivers’ alertness during long hours behind the wheel.
  • Environmental factors such as adverse working conditions, noise and vibration: Uncomfortable seating, extreme temperatures, loud noises and whole-body vibration contribute to higher fatigue levels among truck drivers, potentially affecting their well-being and performance on the road.

Chart on truck driver statistics

Regulations on Truck Driver Fatigue

Worldwide, authorities enforce guidelines on maximum allowable driving hours, mandatory rest breaks and limits on consecutive workdays to minimize driver fatigue. In the USA, FMCSA enforces Hours of Service (HOS) regulations to reduce the likelihood of fatigue-induced accidents on the roads. Key provisions include:

  • Drivers are limited to a maximum of 11 hours of driving daily after 10 consecutive hours off duty.
  • Drivers are limited to 14 hours of daily on-duty time, including driving time and other work-related activities. Off-duty time does not extend the 14-hour period. 
  • Drivers must take a 30-minute break after 8 hours of driving time.
  • Drivers are limited to a maximum of 60/70 hours of on-duty time over 7/8 consecutive days.
  • Drivers must use electronic logging devices (ELDs) to record their hours of service. These devices automatically record the driver’s hours of service, including driving time and rest periods, and thus help with ensuring that drivers comply with HOS rules.

Failure to comply with these regulations may lead to penalties, fines and potentially the revocation of a carrier’s operating authority.

Preventing Truck Driver Fatigue: Strategies and Initiatives

In the transportation industry, Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) professionals are increasingly implementing programs and strategies to ensure compliance with regulations, mitigate truck driver fatigue and enhance fleet safety. With drivers as stakeholders in safety programs, organizations can implement adequate scheduling systems, providing sufficient rest breaks during long hauls and promoting healthy sleep patterns. They can also offer support services like counseling and comprehensive fatigue awareness training to ensure that drivers have the resources and knowledge needed to maintain their well-being and perform their duties safely and effectively. By gathering feedback from drivers through surveys and interviews, health and safety professionals can spot early signs of fatigue like feelings of drowsiness or difficulty concentrating, especially during long hauls.

Download the free insight report, Employees as Stakeholders in Transportation Safety

Industry organizations have developed various initiatives aimed at preventing and mitigating truck driver fatigue. These programs focus on providing education and training as essential tools to help drivers manage risks of drowsiness effectively. One such example is the North American Fatigue Management Program, developed by medical and sleep scientists from Canada and the United States. EHS programs in transportation companies can integrate this effective resource, which offers education on fatigue management for drivers, families, carrier executives and managers. It highlights the importance of maintaining healthy sleep habits, recognizing signs of fatigue and understanding the consequences of driving when tired. It also provides insights into sleep disorders and proven strategies for optimizing trip schedules to ensure better rest and alertness.

Technological Solutions in Transportation Safety: The Role of Intelex

In an industry where truck drivers operate mostly alone for long hours on end, a digital safety management system is a critical component to connecting a wide and diverse chain of teams, many of whom never have personal interactions with one another. In their work environment, freight operators need access to mobile applications for real-time safety updates and easy reporting of observations and incidents that include driver fatigue risks and indicators.

As a global leader in EHS and risk management software, Intelex offers advanced solutions for driver safety in transportation and logistics. Intelex Job Safety Analysis, Safety Inspections Management, Incident Reporting and Near Miss Reporting Software are effective tools for incident reporting and analysis, safety inspections and regulatory compliance that trucking companies can implement to proactively address safety concerns and ultimately enhance the overall safety culture within their operations.

Intelex Behavior-Based Safety Software aids transportation companies in recording, tracking, analyzing and correcting driver behavior to prevent accidents and enhance safety. Through Observations, Bulletins and Mobile applications, drivers receive real-time information and can report on fatigue-related incidents and health and wellness metrics. Intelex Training Management efficiently schedules and tracks fatigue management and compliance training, ensuring drivers are well-equipped to recognize and prevent fatigue-related risks. When organizations utilize such powerful tools, which ensure real-time reporting and prompt action based on comprehensive data to enhance safety standards, drivers feel assured that their organization is committed to their health and well-being.

With Intelex, logistics and transportation companies are equipped with effective instruments to proactively manage truck driver fatigue and enhance road safety. When integrated with a vigorous safety management program, these solutions allow for timely interventions to robustly safeguard drivers and significantly reduce risks of road accidents. Ultimately, they have a clear and meaningful shared goal: to prevent otherwise avoidable injuries and tragic loss of life on the road.

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