By Dr. Rich Hanowski – Director, Center for Truck & Bus Safety, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute
Commercial truck drivers are the unsung heroes of the highway. They work a highly demanding job that is critical to our economy, and more often than not, do not receive the recognition they deserve. Additionally, the long hours and sedentary nature of trucking contribute to poor sleep habits and health. This can be a deadly combination, not just for the drivers themselves, but for others on the road as well.
According to the National Academic Press (NAP), of the 4,000 annual fatalities related to accidents involving trucks and buses, 10-20 percent are related to driver fatigue. The solution to this problem might seem simple—just make sure drivers sleep more. The reality is more complex, however. Factors contributing to fatigue include extended wakefulness, poor sleep quality, acute sleep deprivation, time-on-task and chronic insufficient sleep. The fact that sleep disorders are found more commonly in truck drivers as compared to the rest of the population further exacerbates the problem. Not only does fatigue lead to an increased crash risk, it also contributes to degradation in drivers’ short-term and long-term health.
Another factor negatively affecting drivers’ health is obesity, which is tied to the extended periods of inactivity. Weight gain is also fueled by insufficient sleep. It’s easy to see how poor sleep and health issues compound. According to a study by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, drivers with three or more medical conditions were at a much higher risk of preventable Department of Transportation reportable crashes.
The industry has long recognized driver fatigue and poor health as significant threats to safety. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) is currently conducting a program called FAST DASH, where promising safety technologies, including those directed at thwarting driver fatigue, are selected and tested in small-scale field studies. Some of these technologies that have recently been considered for testing include “smart” hats, glasses, and watches that are equipped to help detect signs of fatigue and send alerts directly to the driver. Virginia Tech Transportation Institute is also working with FMCSA and SmartDrive to conduct a flexible sleeper berth study, to determine whether more flexibility in drivers’ shifts and when they take breaks to sleep improves alertness and safety. Additionally, on-board monitoring systems (OBMS)—such as video-based systems—provide continuous, objective measure of driver behavior and proactively identify risk factors. This enables fleet managers to intervene and work with drivers to develop better sleep strategies, tailored to each driver’s individual needs. These steps are critical to preventing accidents, and keeping everyone on the road safer. Reinforcing this message is the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which has found that equipping all new and existing large trucks with video-based onboard safety systems can prevent as many as 63,000 crashes, 17,733 injuries and 293 deaths each year.
Though these technologies have come a long way in creating a safer environment for commercial truck drivers, more research is needed. The industry needs better methods to determine the quality of sleep a driver receives, how this impacts his/her performance, and a deeper understanding of the impacts of certain lifestyle changes on alertness. Most of all, eliminating driver fatigue as a safety concern in trucking will require knowing the contributing factors and risks before a collision takes place, and intervening effectively.
 Vendors with promising safety technologies designed for commercial vehicles can find out more about the program, including an application, here: https://www.vtti.vt.edu/research/ctbs/fast-dash.html
Dr. Rich Hanowski is a Sr. Research Scientist at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute where he serves as Director of the Center for Truck & Bus Safety. He has been involved in transportation human factors since 1991, with research focused on driver behavior and driving performance in commercial vehicle operations. Dr. Hanowski has authored more than 250 publications including journal articles, conference papers, book chapters and technical reports. He has received several awards for his research and was the 2011 recipient of the SAE International L. Ray Buckendale Award. Dr. Hanowski received his Ph.D. in Industrial and Systems Engineering from Virginia Tech in 2000.