All eyes on driver fatigue

By Matthew A. Daecher

As I reflect back on recent safety initiatives while also looking ahead, two topics stand out in my mind: distracted driving and fatigued driving.

Distracted driving has been a hot topic for several years. The issue hit its peak in the motorcoach industry when safety regulations related to distracting cell phone use by commercial drivers and carriers came into play in late 2010. Long before these regulations were enacted, however, most companies understood that distracted driving was a serious safety issue. As is typical, some carriers took steps to counteract it while others waited to be told what to do.

Has the danger associated with distracted driving gone away? No.

To the contrary, vehicle and personal mobile electronics continue to enhance the opportunities for distracted driving. While many newer cars now have Bluetooth phone systems to limit hand-held phone use, some newer cars are also their own mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. New research shows that surfing while driving (webbing) is on the rise. As carriers, however, we feel more comfortable that we’ve done what we can to control distracted driving by our drivers and for our customers, which is all we can ask for.

This brings us to another safety concern — fatigued driving. Fatigue is one of those moving targets difficult to pin down. A lot of questions that can be asked about the concept of fatigue come with, unfortunately, a lot of vague and uncertain answers.

Some of the questions I’ve heard from operators:  What defines fatigue?  When does it occur?  How will I know someone is fatigued?  How can I prevent fatigue?  Is fatigue the same as sleepiness?

We should probably already know the answer to these questions since we certainly understand that fatigued driving contributes to accidents. Part of the problem is it is tough to quantify exactly when fatigue was a causal factor in an accident, especially when not indicated by a driver.

Nonetheless, many safety agencies have attempted to quantify fatigue-related incidents, including the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). It estimates fatigue is a factor in up to 80 percent of all crashes. In fact the NTSB considers fatigue such an issue in transportation that they have issued over 200 fatigue-related recommendations. Fatigue has been on their top-10 “Most Wanted” list for over two decades.

So with fatigue being such an issue, why no additional regulations to combat it and why has it been pushed consistently to the back burner?

The reason: There is no black and white — only shades of gray.

The medical definition of fatigue is: “lessened capacity for work.” Fatigue can be mental, physical or both. Fatigue affects individuals at different times and in different ways. Fatigue is not sleepiness, which is defined as “difficulty maintaining wakefulness.”  Fatigue can – and does – lead to sleepiness. Fatigue symptoms vary, and can be mistaken for other afflictions. Confused?  Me too.

What we know about fatigue should raise eyebrows and sound familiar for any transportation operator:

Fatigue negatively affects situational awareness, attention, and reaction time.
Fatigue results in increased irritability, attention lapses, and micro-sleeps.
Physiological factors, such as sleep, sleep disorders, hours awake and circadian clock are factors in levels of fatigue.

These factors should also suggest that solving this issue takes a multi-faceted approach. Healthy sleep, medical fitness, scheduling practices and awareness are all keys to attacking fatigue.

It’s time for operators to start assessing where they stand with regard to managing these risk factors and addressing any nagging fears.

All indications are that regulators are seriously reviewing the issue and will propose changes to hours of service rules among other items. The bigger question is whether to wait for any required changes or take proactive steps to counteract fatigue on your own.  BR

Matthew A. Daecher is president and CEO of Daecher Consulting Group, Inc., Camp Hills, PA.