Recognizing and dealing with drowsiness can help prevent costly accidents.
Telltale signs are excessive blinking, head bobbing, trying to refocus your eyes. You find yourself drifting in your traffic lane or into other lanes. You lose track of mile markers or miss your exit. You are surprised by overtaking traffic in lanes next to yours.
It’s past time to pull off the road and take a break. You may be suffering from fatigue. Physical and emotional stress, sleep loss and prolonged work all result in fatigue and performance that is well less than 100 percent. Fatigue may increase the chances of sleepiness, but it’s not synonymous with sleepiness, says Dr. Jeff Durmer, chief medical officer for FusionSleep.
Recognizing you are fatigued may be difficult, Durmer says, because people often fight it. For many, warning signs are the inability to keep your eyes open or committing errors of commission — shifting gears when it’s not necessary — or omission, such as failure to look at your speedometer or notice your turnoff. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of these errors are not something we can detect personally before they happen,” he says.
Other signs you may be suffering fatigue are headaches or blurry vision, Durmer says, or maybe you’re unable to concentrate.
Gerald P. Krueger, PhD, principal in Krueger Ergonomics, says the most common response when truckers are asked how they know they are too drowsy to continue driving is when their eye scan pattern is compromised. As Krueger tells it, drivers say, “All of a sudden another vehicle shows up at my left front bumper.”
Sleep to stay awake
Don’t reach for the thermos. Studies have found that drinking coffee, rolling down the window in cold weather and other stimulants don’t work very well, Durmer says.
Bob Stanton, a company driver for a major national carrier, says fatigue is something that all long-haul drivers have to manage daily. “It’s part of the work environment we’re in,” he says. “Any driver has to recognize when they’re fatigued and that it’s time to stop and take a nap.” Stanton says he’s easily rejuvenated by taking a 30-minute “power nap.”
Owner-operator Brian Chute, leased to Transmaxx, says he schedules two 30-minute breaks into his workday and spends them walking or napping. If he’s driving and feels the “yawns and leans” coming on, he’ll call a buddy and start a conversation for stimulation.
Napping helps if you’re not getting adequate sleep during your 10 hours off duty. Krueger says one of the aims of hours of service rules was to provide sufficient time for commercial drivers to get 7-8 hours of sleep every 24 hours. That works in theory, but conditions on the road often make it difficult, especially if you drive at night and sleep during daylight hours. Physiologically speaking, the body isn’t normally meant to be sleeping during the day, and daytime sleepers usually sleep less than needed. Additionally, other rigs leaving, arriving and idling make truckstops noisy places to sleep.
Anti-idling ordinances contribute to driver fatigue, Stanton says. “How do you expect a long-haul over-the-road driver to get restful sleep in a truckstop in the Mojave Desert sleeping from 2 p.m. to midnight to be in compliance with hours-of-service regulations?” he asks.
Driver fatigue is independent of hours-of-service rules, Krueger contends. He says he knows of drivers who comply with HOS regulations who nonetheless are fatigued. “From your body’s circadian rhythm standpoint, probably the best time to be driving is from 6:30 to 8:30 at night because that’s when your body temperature is rising at its fastest rate,” he says. “At about 10:30, your body is saying it’s time to go to sleep.”