Awake at the wheel

It's easy to feel smug here at the top of the food chain. Humans are so overwhelmingly dominant, so adaptable and capable. Under that impressive brain and those handy opposable thumbs, however, there still beats the heart of a diurnal mammal, driven by biology to seek the nighttime comfort of burrow or bunk. Scientists refer to this innate pattern of wakefulness and sleep as the circadian rhythm.

It's easy to feel smug here at the top of the food chain. Humans are so overwhelmingly dominant, so adaptable and capable. Under that impressive brain and those handy opposable thumbs, however, there still beats the heart of a diurnal mammal, driven by biology to seek the nighttime comfort of burrow or bunk.

Scientists refer to this innate pattern of wakefulness and sleep as the circadian rhythm. Call it what you will, it makes a 24-hr. work schedule utterly unnatural for humans. The fact that we insist upon doing it anyway causes our willful species no end of trouble.

It is no coincidence, for example, that the most severe trucking accidents are primarily caused by fatigue and occur between the hours of midnight and 6:00 a.m. It is also no coincidence that these fatigue-related accidents tend to be the most costly. According to some estimates, they account for 15% of the total accidents and as much as 80% of the total cost.

“Since the driver is incapacitated from taking evasive action at the point of impact due to his or her reduced level of alertness, fatigue-related accidents are often severe in terms of injury, damage and cost,” explains Todd Dawson, manager of operations for Circadian Technologies, Inc. (www.circadian.com). The company is dedicated to optimizing human performance, safety and health in organizations with 24-hour operations, such as truck fleets. According to Dawson, Circadian Technologies has worked with more than 225 of the Fortune 500 companies to help them address the challenges of working in a non-stop world. “Commercial vehicle drivers tend to describe fatigue as ‘nodding off’ or as ‘being asleep at the wheel,’” says Dawson. “In scientific terms, they are actually having brief, involuntary, ‘micro-sleeps’ of two to thirty seconds. During these episodes, they are momentarily not in charge of their vehicles' speed or course, and they typically have no memory of this lapse. This is one reason why drivers seldom report fatigue as the cause of an accident,” adds Dawson, and why many fleets don't even realize that they have a severe and potentially dangerous fatigue problem among their drivers.”

To help companies identify and address fatigue, Circadian Technologies has developed a Fatigue Management System involving not just drivers, but also managers, dispatchers, drivers' families and friends, and even the fleet's customers in the solution. “The driver is in control of only about 60% of the factors that cause fatigue,” Dawson says. “A tired driver is just a symptom of other things that are wrong with the system, from overly demanding schedules, to a lack of good locations for parking to rest, to customers who make drivers wait long hours to load and unload, and even poor sleep habits at home. Legal hours don't necessarily mean safe hours.

“We work with companies to create Fatigue Management Systems that involve a range of interventions designed to target specific areas within a business that are most at risk,” he says. “This requires first measuring the location and extent of fatigue risk in the entire operation using our simulation software to predict driver behavior. This information helps fleet managers proactively manage fatigue before accidents occur.”

According to Dawson, taking this science-based approach to managing fatigue can net big benefits for carriers. “Fleets typically notice that their single-vehicle accidents virtually disappear,” he says. “As time passes, employees begin to feel better and to perform better and productivity starts to climb.”

This could be promising news indeed for profit-starved fleets and for all the sleepy humans working in the non-stop trucking world.

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