Worker fatigue affects nearly all working individuals in the United States in one way or another. For many of us, the fatigue that sets in at some point during our working day is just a part of life and may mean that our attention during a conference call drifts or we have a difficult time drafting an email response to a complex question. However, for professional truckers, worker fatigue can be a real danger not only to themselves but to others who are sharing the roadways with them. For truckers, the added stress and labor of loading and unloading their cargo may have a profound impact on increasing the level and rate of fatigue.
There are nearly 3.5 million commercial truck drivers in the United States and they are driving 15.5 million trucks of which 2 million are the large tractor-trailer type rigs that we generally associate with commercial trucking. There is a belief amongst many that these tractor trailer rigs are more dangerous than other commercial vehicles and non-commercial vehicles on the road. However, generally this is not the case and only 9% of all traffic deaths in the United States involve a commercial vehicle; in those accidents, 80% are caused by the driver of the non-commercial vehicle. Of the remaining accidents, only 4% are the result of fatigue.
This may seem like a small number which may indicate that fatigue is not a major concern. However, when the cause is driver fatigue, and that issue can be treated, remedied and improved, any percentage of accidents based on fatigue is too high. The organization that regulates truckers and trucker driving conditions is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration which has made it a high priority to fight driver fatigue. The FMCSA does have a section which states that no carrier may require a driver to operate a truck while they are impaired by illness or fatigue unless there is a grave emergency in which it would be more of a detriment to the roadways and commerce if they did not operate their vehicles. This standard is very vague and arbitrary and does not generally give a driver a very concrete “out” if they are truly fatigued.
In an industry in which compensation can be based on miles run or deliveries completed, it may seem to a driver to be much more beneficial and necessary to continue driving even if they are exhausted and know that it may be smarter to call it quits for the day. Many drivers also are required or expected to load and unload their vehicles, obviously depending upon what the cargo is.
Being expected to load and unload the cargo may mean that a normal work day starts even earlier and runs even later. An example would be a driver who is delivering bakery items: bakeries begin work very early and work late into the night to ensure there is fresh product for the next day meaning truckers also are keeping those early and late hours. In the summer hours in hot climates, it may be that this fatigue is compounded even more by the simple reaction of the body to working in hot, humid conditions. The trucker will sweat and lose valuable body resources that may help to keep him awake and alert. The question is how does one change this routine so that trucker fatigue does not continue to be an accident statistic and an immediate scapegoat in accidents involving commercial vehicles?
The FMCSA has attempted to help not only with its regulation from above but also by requiring drivers to keep and maintain daily logs about not only their driving hours but also detailing their off-work hours. With these regulations in place, the FMCSA not only has a record to look back on in the event of an accident, but this daily log keeping may also make a driver more aware of how his or her time is being spent both in the cab and out of it and may allow a driver to make changes in their routine to improve their energy level.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that there will be a great change in driver fatigue as long as the trucking culture is such that a driver’s livelihood is based on loads and miles driven and if a driver can get back on the road sooner by unloading or loading cargo him or herself, then likely this practice of loading and unloading will continue. The only way to stop the result of increased driver fatigue due to loading and unloading is to either change regulations which may limit how much cargo in each load and how many loads a trucker may load or unload or perhaps even to change the regulations so that they are more environmentally reactive and a driver in the hot, humid southern states, may not be required to unload cargo when the temperature reaches a certain level.
These are merely suggestions but they must be considered not only from a regulatory standpoint but also with the input of the drivers themselves if they are to be successful. For now, it must be hoped that drivers will acknowledge when they are tired and take themselves off the road for some well-needed rest.