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When trucker fatigue turns fatal, what can we do?

Oct. 15, 2019
Falling asleep at the wheel in a semi should not happen in the 21st century, and there are plenty of actions fleets can do to avoid blood on their hands.

It was a Monday, the first day of July and a short week for most, as most were looking forward to a three-day work week heading into Independence Day. It was a typically humid, warm summer morning here near the southwestern end of Kentucky and still dark—sunrise was 40 minutes away. Brian K. Chappell, who had been on the job for about 90 minutes already, wouldn’t be alive to see it.

The 44-year-old was hauling demolished car scrap back from Tennessee to his employer’s recycling yard in Livermore via Interstate 69. At some point, he drifted off as did his 2012 ProStar Class 8 truck. The tractor-trailer, which all together weighed 79,000 lb. veered onto the unprotected grassy median and into the southbound lane. The rusty blue trailer tipped and skidded 33 feet before violently smashing into the guardrail.

The crumpled cab was now as unrecognizable as the freight. The emergency response crew arrived around 10 minutes later and pronounced Chappell dead at the scene. A 62-year-old man in a pickup who had not been able to avoid the overturned trailer blocking both southbound lanes was rushed to the hospital. He was seriously injured but would survive.

It was the fourth crash involving semis in Kentucky in less than a week, killing at least four others and injuring more than 26. Accidents happen, especially around the Fourth of July. After analyzing the report on this July 1 crash, provided by the Kentucky Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) program, an extension of the University of Kentucky’s College of Public Health, this one was absolutely avoidable.

And maybe by examining this tragic instance, it could help prevent another.

Determining fault

First, let’s determine the root cause. Losses of life in these situations seem pretty easy to explain: The driver fell asleep and died as a result; Darwinism at work, now move along, nothing to see here.

Yes, it does appear true that Chappell fell asleep. The original investigating officer surmised this, and the FACE investigator Beau Mosley concurred, “as there was no evidence of an attempted correction, no gouge marks, attempted braking, etc. This typically only occurs when either the driver is asleep behind the wheel or unconscious due to a medical event, [and] the medical event was ruled out.”

But was this a case where Chappell was solely at fault? Would he be alive if only he had been better prepared for the drive with more sleep and more coffee?

That also may be true, but nobody alive knows everything Chappell personally did between picking up the junked car freight somewhere in Tennessee and heading back to home base in Livermore, Ky.

Here’s what the report wrote about him: The victim was a 44-year old male who had been employed with the company for 12 months. He was never married and had less than a high school education. Prior to working for the company, the victim had driven commercially for other companies for five years.

What we also know is that these are not rare occurrence. Mosley has reconstructed three fatalities (not all for FACE) where fatigue was a major factor.

“Fatigue-related fatality collisions are common,” Mosley said. “As stated in the report, (NHTSA) studies show that falling asleep behind the wheel resulted in 846 fatalities in 2014. That’s 2.6% of all fatalities during that year.”

Fatigued driving itself is an all-too common phenomenon. Based on self-reporting, the CDC found 1 in 25 adults fell asleep behind the wheel in the last 30 days.

Each person likely nodded off for different reasons, each affected by different variables. The major takeaway is that we all have done the head bob at some point in our lives and are lucky enough to still be here. We’re humans; we get tired.

A major problem is that truckers are humans (who get tired) responsible for a considerably higher amount of mass on the road.  On average, the cars on the road weigh a scant 3.5% less than the truck in question, which right before impact was a nearly 40-ton uncontrolled battering ram barreling down the highway. The speed wasn’t determined, but this stretch near I-69 mile marker 36 was a 70-mph zone.

According to the FMCSA’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study, 13% of commercial vehicle drivers who crashed were fatigued. This study, from 2007 and relying on 2001-2003 data from 120,000 crashes involving 141,000 large trucks, found brake problems were most common cause (29% of cases), while illegal drugs (2%) and alcohol (1%) were least common.

While the NHTSA study Mosley cited found 846 deaths due to drivers falling asleep, other studies have attributed between 5,000 and 8,000 deaths annually due to drowsy driving.

The FMCSA recommends commercial drivers stay off the roads when the body is naturally predisposition to sleep, which is between 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The other issue is the repetitive nature of truck driving. If you’re driving out west during the day, with scenic vistas brightening up the journey, of course you’ll be a bit more alert and focused because your work at that point is more enjoyable. And if traffic is denser and/or the weather is bad, you’re also going to clench a little tighter on the wheel.

What Chappell faced — a dark, uncluttered road on a muggy morning — was the driving equivalent of a warm glass of milk and white noise.

The fact is Chappell paid for his mistake with his life. But the root causes, the repetitive nature of driving and natural nighttime fatigue, live on.

What to do?

To combat drowsy driving, a fleet manager can simply not let drivers out after midnight.

“Companies should be aware of, and avoid, scheduling commercial drivers to work during these high-risk time periods when fatigue is most likely,” FACE recommends in the report.

It’s noble to try, but that midnight cutoff didn’t work in Gremlins, and it isn’t really feasible for many long hauls. That’s where technology comes in.

Newer trucks have all sorts of cameras and alerts to ensure truckers can see into their blind spots maintain their lanes. The 2012 ProStar Chappell drove did not have these, but International’s newer LT Series can employ the Bendix Wingman Fusion lane departure warning that may have roused Chappell in time to avoid losing control.

Companies and the government have known the about drowsy commercial driving and all the collateral damage and death that comes with it for quite some time. Trucking hottest hot button topic, the mandatory use of electronic logging devices (ELDs), stems from monitoring drivers Hours of Service and thus, giving management the data to prevent fatigued drivers from endangering the safety of themselves and others.

The mandate went into effect Dec. 16, 2016, but Chappell’s company had an exemption for short-haul drivers who operate within a 100-air-mile radius of their reporting location. The crash happened near the Graves-Marshall County line, which is slightly more than 100 road miles away, though on this trip he was reportedly coming from Tennessee.

In the report, FACE advised all companies to install ELDs, which “can alert company supervisory personnel of driving behaviors that may be related to driving while fatigued such as hard application of the brakes and quick turns that affect the stability of the vehicle. These alerts would allow company personnel to contact the driver to investigate further and possibly prevent a collision from occurring.”

The Paducah Sun reported that McCracken County authorities (where the crash took place) confirmed Chappell overturned a semi the previous week. No injuries or other involved vehicles were reported. It should also be noted authorities initially misreported Chappell was traveling southbound on July 1.

Fleet Owner reached out to the company for clarification, which assisted with the FACE investigation, but so far, has declined to comment. The company has four drivers, four commercial vehicles and six semi-trailers.

FACE does recommend employers test drivers for sleep apnea, which could be a reason a driver is consistently fatigued. The University of Pennsylvania found more than 1 in four commercial drivers suffer from a mild to severe form of the disorder, which interrupts healthy sleep patterns.

You can find a sleep lab to get tested by visiting this site.

Health and privacy are sticky legal issues fleet owners may not want to deal with, though those certainly seems more ideal than living with a horrific crash on your conscience.

An Australian company, Seeing Machines, uses a camera mounted in the dash and face- and gaze-tracking algorithms to determine if a driver is getting drowsy or distracted. If the situation warrants it, the system activates alarms and seat vibrations. Data is also sent to the fleet management to intervene if needed. In the last 12 months, the company has detected more than 5 million detracted events and intervened in almost 120,000 fatigue events.

The next obvious solution would be to remove the driver completely and use more self-driving trucks, as artificial intelligence doesn’t have the biological imperative for sleep. But Mosley doubts one crash on a lonely Kentucky highway will do much to sway the public. But it could certainly get more conversations started.

“I think it’s too early for the public to grasp the technology as it seems so farfetched currently,” Mosley said. “Like anything new, people need time to acclimate, but a case like this would build a strong argument to establish the reasoning behind the technology.”

In the end, fleets don’t need to wait around for a decade or more for these accidents to stop. The technology and best practices already exist to prevent tragedies like these. The only question is if fleets care enough about their drivers and others on the road to do something about it.

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor

John Hitch, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, is the editor of Fleet Maintenance, a B2B magazine that addresses the service needs for all commercial vehicle makes and models (Classes 1-8), ranging from shop management strategies to the latest tools to enhance uptime.

He previously wrote about equipment and fleet operations and management for FleetOwner, and prior to that, manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician aboard a nuclear-powered submarine.

For tips, questions or comments, email [email protected].

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