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Empowering Our Female Truckers

What Can Truck Drivers Do to Avoid Drowsy Driving?

Photo: Courtesy of Samuele Errico Piccarini

Dr. Stephanie Pratt, the director of NIOSH Center for Motor Vehicle Safety, gives her advice for truckers looking to live healthier lifestyles on the road.

Dr. Stephanie Pratt

Director, NIOSH Center for Motor Vehicle Safety

The NIOSH National Survey of Long-Haul Truck Driver Health and Injury found that 27 percent of long-haul truck drivers slept six or fewer hours during an average 24-hour period. What can the trucking industry do to ensure drivers are getting the rest they need to stay alert while driving?

Trucking companies can give drivers information about the importance of following hours-of-service regulations and information on the effects of fatigue on safe driving. They can offer screening and treatment for sleep apnea. Scheduling is also important; companies can set delivery schedules that allow drivers enough time to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep. Taking a break at least every four hours of continuous driving will also help drivers stay alert.

Trucking companies can also implement the North American Fatigue Management Program (NAFMP), a comprehensive approach developed jointly by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Transport Canada, and partners. The NAFMP offers educational modules for drivers, their families, trucking companies, shippers and receivers, and dispatchers covering topics such as corporate culture, scheduling practices, sleep disorders, and fatigue management. Although the NAFMP was originally intended for use by trucking companies, the modules designed for drivers can be used separately by independent owner-operator drivers.

Truckers may not understand the importance of sleep for overall health. What steps can truck drivers take to prioritize and improve their quality of sleep?

Good sleep is as important as nutrition or exercise to stay healthy, and improving the quantity and quality of sleep can have lasting benefits. Truckers can consult the NIOSH Quick Sleep Tips for Truck Drivers, which includes advice on helping them get better sleep at home or on the road. This brochure offers advice on creating a healthy sleep environment, including:

  •       Finding a parking area that is safe and as quiet as possible
  •       Blocking out light and noise
  •       Keeping the cab or bedroom temperature cool
  •       Using a comfortable mattress and pillow
  •       Silencing phones and allowing ringtones only for important contacts
  •       Avoiding watching TV and using computers or tablets right before bedtime

Food and beverage choices are also important to good sleep: avoid heavy or spicy meals and alcoholic drinks before bedtime and avoid caffeine several hours before bedtime if it tends to keep you awake.

Truckers can also improve their sleep if they understand circadian rhythms, the natural body clock that gives us strong signals during the night and early morning hours that it’s time to sleep. Arranging to sleep during these hours will improve the quality of sleep. Truckers should also be aware of the signs of sleep apnea, which include snoring and daytime sleepiness. It’s important for anyone with these symptoms to see their doctor and, if they are found to have sleep apnea, to use the CPAP mask or any other treatment that’s prescribed. 

What are common warning signs of drowsy driving? What strategies can truck drivers use to combat drowsiness when they’re on the road?

What makes drowsy driving so dangerous is that you may not be aware you’re drowsy. At first, you may find yourself drifting from your lane, missing a turn or exit, or forgetting the last few miles you’ve driven. Later stages of drowsiness may involve frequent yawning or blinking, head-bobbing, or a feeling that your eyelids are getting heavy. “Microsleeps” – falling asleep for just a few seconds – are especially dangerous; you may not even be aware that you’ve fallen asleep, and a lapse of just a few seconds is plenty of time to get into a crash.

The only remedy for drowsiness that is truly effective is to stop driving and get some sleep. If you are tired but must continue to drive, the most effective short-term strategy is to drink a cup of coffee and take a 15- to 30-minute nap before getting back on the road. Walking around outside for a while provides a change of scenery and helps circulation; it may also increase alertness. Rolling down the window, turning up the air conditioning, or playing loud music just don’t work.

For truck drivers, and anyone who drives, the goal should be to prevent drowsy driving by getting enough good-quality sleep before getting behind the wheel.

The job of long-haul truck driving involves long hours of sedentary work and limited access to exercise opportunities and nutritious food. These working conditions can be linked to health problems — the NIOSH survey also found that 69 percent of long-haul drivers are obese and more likely than all working Americans to have high blood pressure or diabetes.  What can drivers and trucking companies do to improve drivers’ health and help them make healthier decisions while on the road?

NIOSH research has shown that long-haul truck drivers have barriers to healthy lifestyle choices due to the sedentary nature of the job, tight schedules and lack of access to healthy food, exercise and healthcare when they are not driving. They also tend not to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity. Other research has shown that employees will engage in physical activity when employers provide time during work hours to allow them to do it. Furthermore, providing healthy food choices in place of less nutritious food is acceptable to workers, and it does improve their health. Together, these findings suggest that truck drivers will benefit from efforts to help them improve their leisure time, physical activity, sleep, and food choices, but these programs need to be put in place with the unique work environment of long-haul trucking in mind.

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