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Focus: Fatigue Among Commercial Truck and Bus Drivers

In a May 19 blog post, we informed readers that the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) was pushing employers with drivers of large commercial vehicles to install on-board devices that automatically record how much time a driver spends behind the wheel.

The agency and other safety groups across the country are greatly concerned that driver fatigue is a major catalyst behind truck accidents and bus crashes, and believe that such devices — especially by eliminating paper driver’s logs, which are considered easy to manipulate — will provide for greater reliability and transparency. A final Transportation Department rule on the recorders has not yet been issued.

The matter is certainly assuming a new level of urgency, though, in the wake of a recent spate of tragic commercial bus crashes. Most recently, a driver fell asleep behind the wheel of a motor coach traveling in Virginia on May 31. The bus flipped over, killed four passengers and injured scores more. Prior to the accident, passengers heard the driver complain to another person on a cell phone that he was tired and not getting enough rest.

That is precisely the problem, many safety experts say, pointing to what they claim is a flawed economic model that commercial truck and bus companies adhere to. Its basics: Too many hours on the road; not enough down time between driving stints; and driving at hours when human beings crave sleep the most.

Sleep experts note, for example, that the 4 a.m. – 6 a.m. period is especially dangerous for drivers (the Virginia crash occurred at 5:45 a.m.), because the human body is naturally prone to fatigue and tending toward sleep when darkness is transitioning toward light.

“That time of day is extremely dangerous to drive a motor vehicle,” says one driver-fatigue expert, adding that the urge to nod off occurs regardless of how rested and fit a driver might be.

Related Resource: Associated Press, “Fatal Va. Bus crash shines light on driver fatigue” June 11, 2011