Nearly eight in 10 truck operators say they feel pressured by either their company or the hours of service rule to drive tired on at least a weekly basis, according to recent Overdrive polling. Almost half reported driving fatigued on a daily basis.
Those numbers highlight a deficiency in the federal government’s primary tool – HOS limits – for dealing with potential driver fatigue. While requiring drivers to take at least 10 off-duty hours out of every 24, the regulations can’t control the off-duty period.
They don’t account for a restless night’s sleep, undetected sleep apnea or foolish time management. In the fatal Walmart truck crash involving comedian Tracy Morgan, the truck driver was legal on hours even though he hadn’t slept for more than 24 hours prior to the wreck.
Fatigue-monitoring technology promises to drastically narrow the often vast gap between the government’s formula for alertness and the reality of frequent fatigue. Such systems applied to individual drivers could theoretically replace the clock-based system that attempts to cover all drivers.
The systems could help usher in a regulatory protocol where “drivers with good habits go further, longer,” says Richard Kaplan, chief executive officer of Curaegis, which makes a wearable device that yields predictive and real-time fatigue assessments.
“Drivers who aren’t as healthy or who stay out all night or whatever are not able to stay out so long.”
While the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is studying some of these technologies, it’s years away from possible consideration of an HOS revision that would even begin to incorporate them.
Things are happening much faster in the private sector. Dashcam systems with fatigue-monitoring potential are coming to market rapidly, and a variety of systems that don’t use cameras are starting to make headway in trucking. Fleet customers are getting an increasingly accurate picture of drivers’ fatigue levels, which never has been available. Countering that, though, is potential driver resistance over privacy issues, especially with driver-facing dashcams.
Don Osterberg, formerly safety head with Schneider National, well knows the challenges fleets face, as well as the huge effect fatigue has on safety. He’s an adviser today for SmartDrive, one of the leading road-facing and multi-camera systems.
“There are technologies and programs that we could operationalize today if we were serious about getting after this problem of fatigued driving,” Osterberg says.
Such systems could measure driver fatigue levels during a duty shift or just before it and do much better than the “outdated” hours rule, says John Elliott, president of Michigan-based expediting fleet Load One. Cameras, performance monitors “and biometrics will better determine a driver’s available hours,” he says.
Elliott envisions a system where a driver approaching a maximum limit under current hours regs “might be good to drive for six more hours” based on current data. Another driver in the same situation, however, “might only be good for 30 minutes. It comes down to the ability to measure the human body to better understand and determine what is safe.”
He believes such a system will “allow these guys to have much better” health outcomes and quality of life than exists today, given the close relationships between fatigue, stress and health.
What might work best, Osterberg says, is using combined technologies. One layer, he says, could be psychomotor vigilance task tests developed by NASA, where answering test questions determines an individual’s performance level. PVTs also have been used in driver fatigue research.
In Osterberg’s example, a PVT test could be combined with use of a wristwatch-like actigraph that, by measuring body movement, assesses sleep volume and quality.
“We could get a pretty refined sense of what the driver’s capable of doing in a given day,” he says, adding that video monitoring and facial mapping also could be used.
There are other fatigue monitoring technologies, too. One wearable device measures brain waves, and another measures head movements as indicators of mirror checks, micro-sleeps and distraction. Some wearables capture heart and respiration rates, which can be fatigue indicators.
Another system is baked into Blue Tree Systems’ electronic logging device/telematics platform. It can measure the time between lifting off the accelerator and using the brake. Fatigued drivers tend to lag in anticipating road or traffic changes, so they log shorter times between the two pedals.
Fleets’ concern for safety isn’t the only thing advancing fatigue monitoring technology within trucking. Elements of the systems that are driving autonomous trucking also contribute. For example, the same tech that tracks lane departure and following distance for autopilot-type systems also can be programmed to detect on-highway behavioral patterns indicating a driver could be fatigued or distracted.
Whatever monitoring system is used, what happens after detection is an open question. The basic approach is for a dispatcher to talk with an apparently fatigued driver, trying to assess if the driver can safely reach his destination, or if some mitigation is needed, such as briefly getting out of the truck or taking a nap.
Or a fleet could take a more aggressive approach, giving primary weight to the data and ensuring that fatigued drivers come off the road as soon as possible or never start driving to begin with.
“It will bring more challenges to the industry,” Elliott says. “A driver may leave out, and in two hours the system determines he’s in need of rest. Say the driver just had a 10-hour break period, but for nine of those hours, he was unable to sleep for whatever reason. Say he didn’t feel well. If the ultimate goal is to continue to improve safety, I think we’ll have to address those hurdles as we go. A driver may not like the fact that we’re going to recognize his problems. Say he’s got a sleep issue or another medical issue. But we’d rather have that addressed for him and the motoring public” than not.
Other hurdles could be legal, given medical privacy laws and the like. “I think you might see some of those legal battles fought outside of trucking,” Elliott says, citing airline pilots and bus drivers, since they are responsible for passengers, not freight. Then trucking would reckon with whatever gets codified in those industries.
“In an industry where 4,000 truck-involved fatalities occur every year,” asks Osterberg, “do we have a moral obligation as transportation professionals … to leverage indicators of fatigue as a way of mitigating future crash risk? I don’t believe for a second that regulators are going to go there anytime soon. But carriers sequentially will have to demonstrate the efficacy of interventions” to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Potential intervention goes beyond simply detecting fatigue and warning the driver. Many of the fatigue-monitoring systems offer remedial material for fleets to use in helping drivers learn about sleep patterns, naps and related fatigue mitigations.
Longtime owner-operator and small-fleet owner Harold Hoffman of Springfield, Missouri, believes there’s more fruit to be borne in teaching fatigue management to new drivers than in any technological approach. He believes too many drivers are coming out of CDL schools without the basics.
“Putting a camera in [a driver’s] face and knowing it’s on all the time – I couldn’t handle that,” Hoffman says. “Go back to letting the person stop and take a nap from time to time. New drivers have not learned early on enough that you don’t drive until you’re dead tired and then get some sleep. You’ll never get enough. Stop when that first or second yawn hits. If you learn to recognize the fact that your body gets tired, we wouldn’t need these cameras in your face.”
While fatigue–monitoring technology holds the potential for a new approach to addressing hours of service, few observers anticipate federal action in that direction in the near future.
The integration of such systems, though, appears to be well on its way, with no need for a government decree. Leading the way are thousands of trucks using road–facing dashcams, which can be used to monitor lane–keeping and other signs of potential fatigue. The bigger cam vendors also are finding a growing market for driver–facing cams.
Vincent Dinino, safety director of Emerson Express, says it’s only a matter of time before most carriers adopt some kind of fatigue monitoring, thanks to insurance companies. “We’re going to see a mandate – not from the feds but from the underwriters,” he says.
While insurance companies can’t literally mandate technology adoption, they can encourage its use.
Steve Libertore, a National Risk Management agent and a specialist in owner-operator insurance policies, says he “could easily see how insurance companies would jump on” encouraging the use of such technologies, especially “if it’s something measurable and can help mitigate the losses associated with fatigued driving.”
Libertore says insurers might partner with fatigue management providers to encourage trucking companies to adopt the technologies. “Would it relate to a decrease in insurance premiums?” he says. “Not necessarily. But if it eliminates a loss, then it’s going to reduce premiums, effectively, because of loss-free” pricing incentives. “We could indirectly see cost reduction because of using this technology.”
Insurers also likely will partner with transportation research institutions, such as the American Transportation Research Institute, to distribute to carriers materials showing the effectiveness of fatigue–monitoring tech, Libertore believes.
Daniel Mollicone, CEO of fatigue detection platform provider Pulsar Informatics, also is bullish on the prospects of fleets, particularly larger ones, steadily adopting such technology without a government mandate. His company provides a multi-system approach to fatigue management, using elements such as wearable actigraphs, ELDs and GPS systems, psychomotor vigilance task tests and even consumer wearables such as FitBits and Apple Watches to predict occurrences of fatigued driving.
The company has about 200 customers, mostly large fleets. “But we want to see the market evolve to see those fleets that have 20 trucks and down, even to the owner-operator,” he says. “This is not expensive, and it’s not complicated.”
Emerson Express, a 60-truck fleet in Rochester, New York, beta-tested the Curaegis actigraph fatigue monitor this year. The system assigned drivers an alertness score at the beginning of each work period, says Vincent Dinino, safety director.
If scores dropped too low as the day progressed, drivers would be prompted to answer two questions on their phone about how they were feeling and whether they needed to take a break.
Though the fleet didn’t have access to the data, it provided drivers insight into their own sleep patterns and rest quality. Dinino says several drivers “made lifestyle changes” based on the test data. “Quite often, the [alertness] score was commensurate with how the driver was feeling.”
Dean Newell, vice president of safety for Maverick Transportation, says the 1,700-truck fleet is testing a system that measures drivers’ fatigue level based on sleep time and quality and compares it with ELD data. The system flags drivers at risk, prompting intervention.
“We call them up and talk to them and make sure they’re right and they’re not driving fatigued,” he says.
As many truckers are quick to point out, the hours of service rule’s one–size–fits–all prescription isn’t suited for drivers’ highly variable and unpredictable schedules. Furthermore, because the rule is unable to address the quality or quantity of sleep during off-duty periods, there is no guarantee baked into the regulation that a driver legal on hours is alert enough to drive safely.
The fixed 14–hour on–duty clock virtually forces truckers to continue to operate when they feel tired and otherwise would opt for a long break.
“The government really screwed up when they took away the ability to take a nap and not lose that time” in the duty day, says small–fleet owner Harold Hoffman, echoing common driver sentiment.
Given the predominance of per–mile pay, drivers are pressured to pack as many on–duty hours into that 14–hour window as possible, leaving little room for rest when it’s needed. The rule offers drivers little to no flexibility in managing rest during their off-duty periods.
Don Osterberg, a former member of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee, notes that the rule also often pushes a driver away from an anchor sleep period and into a drifting sleep pattern. “The anchor sleep period provides the most restorative value to mitigate both short– and long–term fatigue,” he says.
A driver might sleep from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. one week but switch the next week to nighttime driving and daytime sleep. “Our bodies can’t adapt to those wide swings in work–rest patterns,” he says.
FMCSA has historically placed most of its fatigue management efforts elsewhere than evaluating fatigue-monitoring technology, some of which has been available for decades, if not in trucking then in mining and construction.
However, FMCSA does have two such monitoring projects in the works, says spokesperson Duane DeBruyne. Systems under research include actigraphy, where a wrist-worn device tracks body movement to measure quality and quantity of sleep, and head-worn devices designed to detect fatigue and distraction by measuring head movements.
The research for both is being conducted by the federal Small Business Innovative Research program, studying what DeBruyne called a trucking fatigue meter and a multi–modal driver distraction and fatigue detection warning system. DeBruyne says the research into those systems will be completed by the end of next year.
DeBruyne describes the fatigue meter as “using existing streams of trucking data to evaluate driver fatigue and provide actionable feedback in near–real time,” a phrase that could describe any of today’s fatigue monitors marketed to the trucking industry.
Results from FMCSA’s Flexible Split Sleeper Pilot Program study could hold the most short–term promise when it comes to giving drivers more ways to effectively deal with fatigue. An agency spokesperson says the study is waiting for a go–ahead from the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Its goal is to see if there are safety improvements when drivers have more options to split the required daily 10–hour off–duty period in increments other than the currently allowed 8 and 2 hours (5 and 5, 6 and 4, etc.).
Many observers cite the slow, cumbersome federal regulatory machine as making it unlikely in the foreseeable future that the hours rule would ever get such a radical revision as to include fatigue–monitoring technology. Others see a less distant path to such a change.
Load One’s John Elliott considers the ELD mandate as a step along the path to changing the rule. With the mandate in effect, “we’ll be able to go back to Congress and push for logical hours reform based on the data,” Elliott says. “FMCSA’s shield has always been ‘We don’t have all the data.’ Like [Compliance, Safety, Accountability], too much [about hours] is based on policy, not on science. With all that data, we can break it down on science for the driver that has just been ignored.”
Small–fleet owner James Griffith also believes FMCSA officials could make better decisions on HOS if they get the accurate data produced by fatigue monitors. It could even lead to a major change in how drivers’ on–duty time is handled, he says.
Griffith’s 35–40–truck fleet, Conard Transportation, based outside of Nashville, Tennessee, uses road–facing dashcams and Maven Machines earpieces that measure head movement to detect potential fatigue and distraction. He says he’s been pleased with the improved safety results.
PART 1: DASHCAMS
The use of road-facing cameras has increased markedly in recent years. Now dual-camera systems, which incorporate a driver-facing cam, show some promise in flagging fatigued driving in real time. Driver-facing cams also draw the biggest objections over driver privacy.
PART 2: WEARABLES
A wide variety of devices, many of them already used in mining, are starting to be used in trucking to detect and even predict fatigue. Mostly worn on the wrist or head, these systems track quality of sleep, head movement, brain waves and biometrics such as heartrate.
PART 3: REGULATIONS
Some experts believe fatigue-monitoring technology could have a major impact on the hours of service, given the reality of the current rule: There’s little other than personal responsibility keeping even the most fatigued drivers from getting behind the wheel as long as log requirements are met. Overdrive examines the challenges drivers, trucking management and regulators would face in any attempt to move in this direction.