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What is driver fatigue

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Driver fatigue is one of the most common – and serious – hazards on the road and is a threat to anyone behind the wheel or on the highway. Awareness of driver fatigue and measures to prevent driver fatigue are understanding: 1. What causes driver fatigue 2. Physical and cognitive effects 3. Drowsy driving dangers 4. Who is at risk 5. Prevention and management

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What causes driver fatigue?

Driver fatigue results from one or several factors: physical tiredness, long working hours, or sleep deprivation -- which in itself has been described by the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) as a public health epidemic.* 

Fatigue can easily set in during long journeys, particularly when drivers take inadequate rest periods or pauses to help break up the monotony. Irregular or disruptive work schedules can also contribute to making drivers tired. There are medical conditions such as sleep apnea which can make some individuals more susceptible to driver fatigue.

Physical and cognitive effects or drowsy driving

A lack of sufficient sleep or feeling of weariness can diminish alertness and concentration, meaning that drivers are less able to recognize oncoming hazards. Reaction times are slowed, as well as the decision-making process. All these can lead to accidents, or make them more severe.

Drowsy driving and its dangers

Driver fatigue can be more serious than a feeling of tiredness – it often produces drowsiness or even causes short sleep episodes. According to studies published by the CDC, when surveyed an estimated 1 in 25 adult drivers (aged 18 years or older) reported having fallen asleep on at least one occasion while driving in the previous 30 days. A 2013 investigation conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that for the U.S. alone, in that year drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries, and 800 deaths.**

Health issues of fatigue

The lack of sufficient sleep that often causes driver fatigue can lead to chronic health problems. Diabetes, heart disease and obesity have been correlated with sleep loss. People who are sleep-deprived are more likely to consume high-energy, sugary food and drink, which may also contribute to various health problems. Persistently inadequate sleep has been linked to depression and anxiety.

Who is at risk for driver fatigue

Commercial vehicle driver and shift worker are among the job categories identified as most susceptible to fatigue and sleepiness. Many commercial drivers are likely to be on the road for hours at a time, which places them at a higher risk of experiencing driver fatigue. As well as the potential for falling asleep at the wheel, tired drivers may be more likely to misjudge speed and distance, which can result in road accidents.

Other effects of fatigue

When off the highway, inadequate or disturbed sleep can make drivers considerably less productive in other aspects of the job. A lack of sleep could also be indicative of other physical or mental health complications which can have an adverse impact on productivity. This means that it is in the direct interest of everyone to take a proactive approach in combating driver fatigue. 

Driver fatigue prevention and management

An issue this important requires a comprehensive strategy to deal with the problem. A first step is to educate anyone who may be involved – especially the drivers – in how to recognize the conditions that elevate the risk of driver fatigue, and be aware of ways to reduce them.

Another part of a prevention or management program is an emphasis on enforcement of the legally-mandated hours of service and required rest periods. Fleet managers should keep in mind that these are minimum standards, and encourage drivers to try to avoid long stretches of driving when they can, consistent with meeting their performance objectives.

Technology can provide valuable support in preventing or reducing driver fatigue. Fleet management solutions give fleet managers the ability to monitor driver hours, and can provide alerts on potential violations before they occur. Telematics tools for managing work schedules and reconciling them with driver hours of service can help allocate work hours evenly, to avoid stressful -- and fatiguing -- situations. 

See how you can improve driver safety

*“The Great American Sleep Recession,” CNN, June 23, 2017.
**“Drowsy Driving: Asleep at the Wheel,” US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 7, 2017.