What is the biggest problem for truck drivers on the nation’s highways – a blown tire, engine trouble, the radio won’t work? No. According to what seems to be an open secret, the biggest truck driver problem on the road may be sleep. Lots of drivers may not get enough of it, and that can cause accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) suggests that a loss of sleep may contribute to 30-40% of all crashes on the highways.
In the United States, trucking is generally considered an on-the-clock business. What the truck carries is usually supposed to be at a certain place by a certain time. Sometimes that means the driver may sacrifice sleep for getting on the road.
Deprived sleep may mean the driver will have slower reaction time. The average number of hours that truckers sleep during the night is 5. Truckers must also deal with time of day. Many of them have overnights or early morning routes, which breaks up a natural sleep pattern. In addition, truckers are often obliged to try to get to sleep during periods when it is natural to be awake. According to a study of commercial drivers, periods of drowsiness are most likely to occur between midnight and 6 a.m.
Statistics on “drowsy drivers” emphasize the problem. Long-haul trips, which usually mean the driver must be awake for longer periods, account for 65% of all fatal truck crashes. Drivers themselves list fatigue as number 7 in the 10 factors that cause accidents; brake problems are number 1 and inattention, which may occur with sleep loss, is number 10. Drivers also report that 1 in 4 have fallen asleep behind the wheel during the previous month.
In 2013, new laws reduced a trucker’s time on the road from 82 hours to 70 hours. The trucking industry has fought these rules and argues that the government should not be allowed to regulate sleep.
Truck drivers are supposed to follow the driving rules established by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), including:
- drive no more than 14 hours before going off duty or sleeping in a berth for 10 hours
- drive an 11-hour maximum during a 14-hour shift
- not drive after 60 hours of work
- not drive after 70 hours in an 8-day period
- not drive 7 days in a row
Determining how much a lack of sleep contributes to problems on the road is often a challenge. It is not always an easy task to determine when and if a driver fell asleep behind the wheel. There is no “sleep test” to make sure the driver is fully awake. A study by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) indicated that 13% of all accidents in which the truck driver died involved sleep deprivation. In one study of long-haul drivers, 66% said they felt some degree of fatigue on half of their trips,
and some reported feeling drowsy or sleepy. In one study, 13% said they actually fell asleep at the wheel.
Safety for truck drivers is part of the curriculum at truck driving schools around the nation, such as the Murfreesboro Truck Driving School in Tennessee. The 15-day course includes both classroom and behind-the-wheel training with an emphasis on technical skills as well as ways to stay safe on the road.