Long-haul trucking is the white whale of fatigue risk management in transportation. Long hours, safety-sensitive, variable sleep arrangements, travel, low oversight, unique operational culture—these are all terms that perk up the ears of a fatigue avoidance nerd such as myself. If you’ve found your way to this blog, then I probably don’t need to tell you that fatigue can impact a driver’s reaction time, attention span, decision-making ability, and is related to an increase of operational errors and probability of road traffic accidents(1,2). The American Trucking Associations estimates that trucks move roughly 72.5% of the nation's freight by weight(3) and the National Transportation Safety Board estimates that driver fatigue is a contributing factor in 30-40% of all heavy truck accidents(4). Fatigue constitutes a significant safety risk in trucking.
Fatigue risk management for trucking, however, requires a different set of tools than it does for even other transportation industries like aviation or rail. Long-haul truck drivers face more schedule variability, less supervision, and fewer regulations with regards to when they work and where they sleep compared to, for example, commercial aviation. We often refer to commercial aviation as the gold standard for fatigue risk management in transportation, but that standard is held in place by a number of tightly-controlled regulations. In contrast, the appeal of professional truck driving is tied to a sense of freedom and control over one’s own schedule. Figuring out how to provide fatigue mitigation tools to truck drivers without compromising their independence is a challenge for risk management organizations to overcome.
Thinking of careers where one has freedom over their own schedule, United States Soldier probably doesn’t pop into your mind. You may then be interested to learn that the U.S. Army has a fleet of commercial long-haul truck drivers. The in-house commercial driver's license (CDL) program that trains the drivers on this fleet has been called one of the Army’s best kept secrets(5). The 42 drivers in the Mission Support Battalion, as the 21-vehicle fleet of “adventure semis” is called, are Soldiers first, truckers after. The fleet embarks on an 11-month deployment every January to promote careers in the Army at recruitment events across America. The 18-wheelers also serve as traveling billboards to promote the Armed Services.
Major Allison Brager, a U.S. Army officer with expertise in sleep and circadian neurobiology recently wrote about her experience as Commander of the Mission Support Battalion in the April 2022 issue of the Journal of Sleep Health(6). In this commentary, she discussed precautions put in place to protect the fleet from the dangers of fatigue. Of note, Soldiers were required to drive in pairs so that a fatigued driver could trade off with their partner. “Tactical use of driver rotation” (switching drivers) has also been advised by other fatigue scientists for risk mitigation in trucking(7). Mission Support Battalion drivers were also prohibited from driving at night and were roughly restricted to driving less than 600 miles per day. A good selling point for these restrictions was that there were no accidents during Major Brager’s period of command, compared to one or more nonfatal accidents involving another vehicle or significant structural damage from previous commands. No fatal accidents have been reported in the Mission Support Battalion fleet(6).
Is any of this relevant to commercial trucking? Soldiers and truckers, in general, share a number of characteristics. Both fields are overwhelmingly male with increased vulnerability to sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, high rates of stimulant use, and a cultural disrespect for the importance of sleep(8-14). Civilian truckers, however, do not need to pass yearly physicals in order to keep their jobs, and are not “deployed” as drivers for a few years before being reassigned to a new position. It’s also hard to estimate the extent to which any fatigue countermeasures that are successful in a 21-vehicle fleet may generalize to an industry with nearly 40 million trucks registered for business purposes under close to one million different for-hire carriers(3).
It’s not like the trucking industry has no tools or regulations to combat fatigue. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently updated the regulations on hours-of-service regulations around short-haul exceptions, adverse driving conditions exception, break requirements and sleeper berth provisions for property-carrying and passenger-carrying drivers(15). These regulations are designed to reduce fatigue risk on the road. Additionally, in-cab fatigue risk management tools for long-haul trucking are pretty cool, like monitoring systems that can identify when a driver is falling asleep at the wheel by eye-tracking or voice analysis(16,17). Traditional use of a biomathematical modeling solution like SAFTE-FAST has not meshed well with the flexible nature of trucker work hours in the past, but the model could be integrated into an app or in-cab system to track fatigue risk in real-time in the future. That kind of fatigue risk management tool is years away, but fortunately, the SAFTE-FAST team is in it for the long haul.