Driving After Dark

| May 28, 2001

However, the resourceful driver realizes that his safety depends on his ability to remain alert and to anticipate problems hidden by darkness. Limited sight distance on hills becomes even more critical since headlights do not illuminate the roadway as the truck is cresting a rise. Anything in the road, on the other side of a hill or around a curve is even more obscured from view. Adjusting one’s speed and vision to the very edge of headlight range are the only ways to ensure safe transit through limited sight distance situations.

The intimate connection between sight and wakefulness is perhaps the most singular aspect of night driving under a driver’s control. Being aware of one’s personal biological low spots can sometimes help a driver schedule his more difficult hours. Contrary to accepted wisdom, some drivers, like Curt Steffler, an owner-operator for Jones Motor, find night driving the most productive time to work. Steffler says, “I always seem to cover more ground at night. On a long ride I drive until 3 or 4, and then sleep until I wake up.” Circadian rhythms are personal, as Steffler’s experience suggests. Thus, it may be true that his biological clock allows him to drive nearly all night.

On the other hand, he may have simply gotten used to the necessity of his work, as Grace has suggested is often the case for drivers who work all night. No matter how used to driving all night one gets, the possibility that fatigue or poor visibility plays a part in creating dangerous driving scenarios remains. Knowing when one needs sleep and turning that knowledge into behavior is a survival skill.

Is it possible to fight fatigue? Is it possible to will oneself to stay awake? The answer is no, according to sleep scientists. At some point the body’s need for rest will overcome the attempts of the conscious mind to remain wakeful. Stuck between a delivery time and a biological need for rest, the driver’s best weapon against fatigue is self scheduling. From knowledge of his personal internal clock, a driver can regulate his day more efficiently.

Grace found in studies of LTL drivers that taking a nap at the first onset of fatigue added more waking time at the end of drivers’ shifts.

What does a driver do to stay awake between spots where he can pull off to sleep? Certainly, there are times when sleep catches up to a night driver, taking him by surprise. One technique that may work for some drivers in emergencies comes from yoga. Breathing is a very important part of many yogic practices. It is said to restore energy by sending large amounts of oxygen to the blood. Yogis have practiced various breathing techniques for thousands of years to refine these techniques.

One such technique, long deep breathing, is simply pulling as much air into the lungs as possible through the nose until the lungs are full. The breath is suspended for a few seconds and then expelled completely. Repeating this a few times sends oxygen to a fatigued brain and will provide temporary relief from overwhelming fatigue. It is a technique that will get a tired driver to the next rest area. It is not meant as a substitute for bunk time.

While drivers struggle to stay awake and see, scientists are hard at work devising new technology to make night driving safer. The Perclos camera, a windshield mounted camera that measures percent of eyelid closure, gives a driver objective feedback about his level of wakefulness.

Smart cruise control systems, lane tracking devices and collision avoidance systems will help lower accident statistics when they become available. The Bendix Xvision infrared night vision system uses heat sensors to extend awareness of low contrast objects to 1,500 feet, according to Andrea Raaber, director of new ventures for Bendix Commercial Vehicle.

This system will extend a driver’s vision of low contrast objects five times, Rabner says. The Bendix system is mounted above the windshield and is used as an aid to driving rather than as a drive-by system, according to Raaber. The system will image any object with a temperature more than 0.2 percent different than the outdoor temperature. Bendix plans to introduce its Xvision system late in the second quarter this year.

Despite the promise of technologically improved night driving capability, drivers will always need to rely on themselves to stay between the ditches. New technology will prove its usefulness over time, but it must first be accepted by drivers. In the meantime, driving at night will continue to be twice as dangerous as driving in daylight.

If you drive when the sun doesn’t shine, make yourself a safer operator by doing what you can to improve your vision and your wakefulness with a little self-knowledge and a whole lot of common sense. A life will always be worth more than a load of freight.

Driving After Dark

| May 28, 2001

However, the resourceful driver realizes that his safety depends on his ability to remain alert and to anticipate problems hidden by darkness. Limited sight distance on hills becomes even more critical since headlights do not illuminate the roadway as the truck is cresting a rise. Anything in the road, on the other side of a hill or around a curve is even more obscured from view. Adjusting one’s speed and vision to the very edge of headlight range are the only ways to ensure safe transit through limited sight distance situations.

The intimate connection between sight and wakefulness is perhaps the most singular aspect of night driving under a driver’s control. Being aware of one’s personal biological low spots can sometimes help a driver schedule his more difficult hours. Contrary to accepted wisdom, some drivers, like Curt Steffler, an owner-operator for Jones Motor, find night driving the most productive time to work. Steffler says, “I always seem to cover more ground at night. On a long ride I drive until 3 or 4, and then sleep until I wake up.” Circadian rhythms are personal, as Steffler’s experience suggests. Thus, it may be true that his biological clock allows him to drive nearly all night.

On the other hand, he may have simply gotten used to the necessity of his work, as Grace has suggested is often the case for drivers who work all night. No matter how used to driving all night one gets, the possibility that fatigue or poor visibility plays a part in creating dangerous driving scenarios remains. Knowing when one needs sleep and turning that knowledge into behavior is a survival skill.

Is it possible to fight fatigue? Is it possible to will oneself to stay awake? The answer is no, according to sleep scientists. At some point the body’s need for rest will overcome the attempts of the conscious mind to remain wakeful. Stuck between a delivery time and a biological need for rest, the driver’s best weapon against fatigue is self scheduling. From knowledge of his personal internal clock, a driver can regulate his day more efficiently.

Grace found in studies of LTL drivers that taking a nap at the first onset of fatigue added more waking time at the end of drivers’ shifts.

What does a driver do to stay awake between spots where he can pull off to sleep? Certainly, there are times when sleep catches up to a night driver, taking him by surprise. One technique that may work for some drivers in emergencies comes from yoga. Breathing is a very important part of many yogic practices. It is said to restore energy by sending large amounts of oxygen to the blood. Yogis have practiced various breathing techniques for thousands of years to refine these techniques.

One such technique, long deep breathing, is simply pulling as much air into the lungs as possible through the nose until the lungs are full. The breath is suspended for a few seconds and then expelled completely. Repeating this a few times sends oxygen to a fatigued brain and will provide temporary relief from overwhelming fatigue. It is a technique that will get a tired driver to the next rest area. It is not meant as a substitute for bunk time.

While drivers struggle to stay awake and see, scientists are hard at work devising new technology to make night driving safer. The Perclos camera, a windshield mounted camera that measures percent of eyelid closure, gives a driver objective feedback about his level of wakefulness.

Smart cruise control systems, lane tracking devices and collision avoidance systems will help lower accident statistics when they become available. The Bendix Xvision infrared night vision system uses heat sensors to extend awareness of low contrast objects to 1,500 feet, according to Andrea Raaber, director of new ventures for Bendix Commercial Vehicle.

This system will extend a driver’s vision of low contrast objects five times, Rabner says. The Bendix system is mounted above the windshield and is used as an aid to driving rather than as a drive-by system, according to Raaber. The system will image any object with a temperature more than 0.2 percent different than the outdoor temperature. Bendix plans to introduce its Xvision system late in the second quarter this year.

Despite the promise of technologically improved night driving capability, drivers will always need to rely on themselves to stay between the ditches. New technology will prove its usefulness over time, but it must first be accepted by drivers. In the meantime, driving at night will continue to be twice as dangerous as driving in daylight.

If you drive when the sun doesn’t shine, make yourself a safer operator by doing what you can to improve your vision and your wakefulness with a little self-knowledge and a whole lot of common sense. A life will always be worth more than a load of freight.

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