Fatigue—An Unseen Trap for Truckers
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GERMANY
AS THE hours go by, the monotonous drone of the powerful engine and the whine of 14 wheels on the road combine to make the truck driver’s struggle against fatigue difficult. The road markers slip silently by in the beam of the headlights. Suddenly, the trailer sways from side to side; it has started to drift off the road.
With a wrench of the steering wheel, the driver maneuvers his 40-ton vehicle back onto the road. Shaken to his senses, he realizes that he has no recollection of the past few seconds. He is suffering from fatigue.a
Anyone fighting fatigue at the wheel can easily doze off momentarily. Given today’s crowded roads, that can be extremely dangerous—even for other road users. For instance, in South Africa, of all accidents involving heavy-goods vehicles that occurred between January 1989 and March 1994, more than 35 percent were caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel.
Professor G. Stöcker, a researcher into driver behavior, said in the German magazine Fahrschule that increasing fatigue leads to drowsiness and has effects that are similar to those caused by alcohol. Of course, his comments are relevant to drivers of all vehicles, not only of trucks.
Causes of Fatigue
Why do accidents related to fatigue occur so often, when in many countries the law recommends, or even stipulates, the maximum number of hours a truck driver can be at the wheel? To start with, we must look at the total working hours of truck drivers, which include time spent not only driving but doing other tasks as well. These working hours are often long and irregular.
Most truck drivers enjoy seeing a task through from beginning to end, which means transporting goods to a customer in any sort of weather. Performance is measured in distance traveled and freight transported. Working hours may be well above average. In Germany most people work less than 40 hours a week, but many truck drivers work twice that.
In other lands conditions are no better. In South Africa wages are low, so drivers try to supplement their earnings by driving longer hours. Reports from India indicate that although transport firms allow drivers enough time to complete their journey, many truckers add to their earnings by taking additional freight to more places, requiring more time at the wheel. They then need to cut down on sleep to be back at the firm on time.
Within the European Union, by utilizing the maximum number of hours permitted by law, a truck driver can spend 56 hours at the wheel in a week. But in the following week, his maximum driving hours are reduced to 34. His working hours, including time spent loading and unloading, are recorded by a monitoring device. This record makes it possible to check whether each driver is keeping within regulations.
Another factor that affects the amount of time spent in the driver’s seat is the viewpoint of the owner. His truck represents an expensive investment that has to be put to good use, if possible 24 hours a day with no unladen journeys. Competition among transport firms is growing, and managers put drivers under pressure to voluntarily work longer hours.
Fatigue results when working hours are long but also when they begin at unusual times. For instance, it is common to start work between one and four in the morning. That is a time when many drivers are at their lowest ebb and their concentration is at its weakest. Pressure increases where firms keep stock to a minimum, demanding deliveries ‘just in time.’ This means that the driver has to arrive at the customer’s premises with the freight at precisely the agreed time. Heavy traffic, bad weather, and road repairs may cause delays that the driver somehow has to make up for.
Despite restrictions on the number of hours permissible at the wheel, random checks by police still reveal violations of the law. According to the magazine Polizei Verkehr & Technik, “almost 1 driver in 8 of all trucks, buses, and dangerous cargo transporters does not keep to the number of hours prescribed for driving and resting.” During a traffic check in Hamburg, the police discovered one truck driver who had spent 32 hours at the wheel of his truck without a break.
Recognizing the Danger
A long-distance driver who transported international freight for 30 years was asked about the problem of fatigue. He observed: “Pride and overconfidence can lead a driver to ignore tiredness. That’s how accidents happen.” Signs of fatigue are listed in the box on page 22.
Recognizing early warning signs can save lives. A study in the United States by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed an alarming statistic: Of 107 single-truck accidents, 62 were fatigue related. Hence, the industry attaches great importance to the development of technical aids that give a warning whenever the driver is falling asleep.
A Japanese firm is working on an electronic system using a video camera that observes how frequently the driver blinks his eyes. Too many long blinks, and a prerecorded voice warns him of his dangerous situation. A European company is working on a device that measures how smoothly the vehicle is being steered. Should the truck sway, a warning sounds in the cabin. It will be some time, however, before effective aids are in production.
Counteracting the Danger
Fatigue has been an uninvited and unwelcome passenger in almost every vehicle. The question is how to evict it. Some drivers sip caffeine drinks by the liter, only to discover that fatigue still follows in merciless pursuit. Others turn to other stimulants. Needless to say, these involve risks to health. In Mexico some drivers eat bites of chili (a very hot pepper) to stay awake.
Before an early start, it is good to get sufficient sleep. And, as a matter of principle, one should keep to the prescribed number of hours at the wheel. In South Africa, experts recommend a pause after five hours of driving. On monotonous stretches of road, the driver ought to keep his mind active and focused. Some drivers listen to the radio or speak to other drivers on CB radio. One driver, who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, listens to cassettes with Biblical themes, such as The Watchtower and Awake! and passages from the Bible. Other tips can be found in the box on this page.
Earning enough to meet the cost of living is becoming increasingly hard, so being balanced is not easy. Some firms or managers underestimate the danger that the fatigue trap poses for drivers. Everyone connected with the transport business, then, would do well to bear in mind what has been learned so far about fatigue. In addition, drivers often have useful tips from their own experience, which can help others combat drowsiness.
The best way to stay alert, of course, is to pay the body the tribute it demands: If you detect any warning signs, stop at the next possible rest area and get some sleep. Thereafter, take up the challenge of driving once more. Do not fall into the unseen fatigue trap!
a As only a small number of the truck drivers in Germany are female, the male gender is used in this article.
[Box on page 22]
Warning Signs That Require Immediate Action
• Do you have burning eyes or drooping eyelids?
• Do you imagine things or find yourself daydreaming?
• Does the road seem to be narrower, causing you to drive along the middle line?
• Is your recollection of certain parts of the journey missing?
• Is your use of the steering wheel and brakes more jerky than normal?
Answering yes to just one of the above questions means that you need immediate rest
[Box on page 23]
On Long-Distance Journeys
• Get enough sleep
• Do not rely on stimulants
• Take rest periods regularly, exercising to limber up
• Bear in mind that monotonous stretches of road are especially dangerous
• Do not start a journey hungry. Train yourself in good eating habits: a light and healthy diet
• Drink plenty of fluids, but avoid alcohol