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Published: 03 February 2017

Fatigue – A Dangerous Wake-Up Call

We all get a little tired now and then. The worst that can happen to you when working in an office is embarrassment when being found snoozing, but when you move a few tonnes of chemicals in your truck, things look different.

Fatigue (also called exhaustion, tiredness, languidness, languor, lassitude, and listlessness) is a subjective feeling of tiredness which is distinct from weakness, and has a gradual onset. Unlike weakness, fatigue can be alleviated by periods of rest. Fatigue can have physical or mental causes. As we are responsible not only for the safe delivery of the goods on board, but also the wellbeing of drivers and other people around the truck, we need to look at what can be done to counter this deadly symptom of modern work. According to the accident research teams of one truck manufacturer, fatigue is one of the main causes of accidents. Having Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) is one of the most important steps to counter fatigue. These SOPs should govern rest times, driving times, regular checks and proper planning for the trips.

Everyone that has been on a road trip to visit friends or relatives or to take the family to the beach will do this: journey planning. One would basically start backwards by determining when to arrive. From there we calculate the journey time including the stops for food, toilets and sightseeing. Add breakfast and getting the folks bundled into the car determines the time to get up. Backwards several hours from there gives you the time you should go to bed in order to get enough sleep. If you are the driver of a commercial vehicle you would basically do the same for every day of the week, whereby you would count the loading, unloading, dealing with staff at the ramp etc into your working hours. Should there not be enough time to sleep, either at home, in the truck or in facilities provided, not enough time to have meals or to even to stretch a bit, then the truck turns into an accident waiting to happen. Fatigued drivers may even fall asleep at the wheel during daytime.

As a result of the research of said accident research teams, trucks from that particular now come with a spacious bunk that allows drivers to rest whenever they need to but they do not advocate them to stop the trucks at the side of the roads/emergency lane which may cause disturbance to other road users. Here drivers may find themselves between a rock and a hard place. In the surveys Asian Trucker has conducted, drivers repeatedly commented on the lack of space at the reststops. Now, what are they to do: continue driving or risking a summons for parking on the emergency lane at the exit of the reststop? The distance between stops doesn’t seem to be too far, so it is easy for drivers to schedule their stops. The issue seems to be more that of the size of the spaces, rather than the number.

For long journeys, it is advisable to have a co-driver so that when the driver is tired, the co-driver can take over. But then again, that costs money. While one driver is “productive”, the other isn’t exactly doing much. Or is s/he? After all, s/he is getting ready for the next shift. With human beings, things can get very unpredictable too as our personal issues, environmental impact and other factors have an influence on our performance. One day we can dance all night in the club and then next day we are ready for a sleep-in after just a walk in the park.

Ergonomics has come a long way and modern cabs of trucks are designed in a way to reduce the effects of fatigue. Sitting position, arrangements of buttons, switches, noise reduction and other aspects help to reduce the stress on the driver. Seeing some of the old trucks on the road one may however wonder how these drivers can still stand working under such conditions. Perhaps these drivers have no other choice and raising their voice may result in them losing their job, something even less favorable than driving an outdated truck. As with many things, the technology may be there, but not accessible to everyone.

Good food and a healthy lifestyle can also help to reduce the effects of fatigue. How many reststops are there however, offering organic food and a fitness park? Getting fresh and healthy food to the rest areas is then another issue to be addressed. As truckers are often paid per trip, they may want to do as many trips as they can, even with the risk of falling asleep on the job. The epic split here is to find a balance between earning enough money for the family and not risking your life and that of others in the process.

Which begs the question of who should be responsible for the wellbeing of the truckers. In several workshops one will find driver lounges. But what about office folks? When was the last time you have seen bedding provided for you after you drove some five hours to a meeting? If trucks are being sent far away for a service, shouldn’t the drivers been given hotel allowances (And use them for exactly that purpose)? One could think that the truckers themselves would know when it is time to stop. Those who have kids would know this analogy of putting your kid’s hand on a hot stove. Once the child has experienced the pain, it won’t touch the stove again with bare hands. As with many things, the mindset would be that fatigue is something that one can control and it doesn’t affect me. Until it does, and with catastrophic consequences.

Modern technology may help to reduce the impact of fatigue. There are several systems available. Even modern passenger cars are now equipped with a simple warning system to shows you a coffee mug when the engine has been running continuously for a number of hours. It’s time to pull over and freshen up. While certainly easy to implement, it is also easy to ignore the little blimp. More sophisticated applications, such as a Drowsy Driver Alert, where the driver’s level of alertness is measured using cameras directed at their eyes and the system will alert the driver and urge him to take a break. Another system, specifically designed to detect fatigue has time and time again proven to be highly effective. In a field test, the results shows that fatigue events per hour driven were significantly lower in the intervention period (2.97 per 1000 moving hours) compared to the baseline period (43.65 per 1000 moving hours), translating to a 93.2% reduction in fatigue events in the intervention period. As such systems are also rather pricey, the implementation may not take place at a quick pace. One way of getting the message across would be simulators or goggles that replicate drowsiness (These are fun exercises when you don’t pilot a 40 ton bullet barrelling down the highway, but the effect will quickly have an impact). Implementing these devises may result in higher cost for the transportation of goods. As always, we need to ask the consumers buying stuff in the supermarket if they are prepared to pay more for the extra safety on the road.

Fatigue, as a health issue, is obviously not that easy to tackle and with all factors to be taken into consideration; it will be not go away by sleeping on it. While every participant in road transportation plays a part in reducing fatigue, it should be the task of fleet managers and drivers to plan trips in a way that reduces stress. What may also help is a system that allows drivers to skip a trip to fully rest without too much financial losses.