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Battling Fatigue

May 4, 2017
Working to keep drivers razor-sharp on the road

You could call 2017 the year trucking takes on driver fatigue, that "other impairment" that's been shown to be just as dangerous as driving distracted or under the influence.

Most commercial drivers will be required starting in December this year to record their time behind the wheel with electronic logging devices, or ELDs, and the whole point of those is to ensure drivers comply with federal hours-of-service (HOS) rules. Those rules, after all, are meant to achieve a U.S. commercial driver workforce that's operating by the books, safely and no more than a certain number of hours — and not driving fatigued.

But have we really beaten fatigue among truck drivers, and is the issue even truly being addressed? The HOS system isn't perfect, however thoughtfully the regulations have been crafted, and Fleet Owner has heard real drivers insist it's possible — maybe even not all that difficult — to be operating in compliance with HOS but not be getting proper rest and face having to drive fatigued. Keeping everyone to federal HOS rules by requiring ELDs ought to weed out cheating with paper drivers' logs, but while HOS may be a good foundation, the system is very likely not the entire solution in preventing driver fatigue.

Could there, for instance, be better ways to manage drivers' schedules, more directly measure and monitor fatigue, and guard against fatigued driving? With the emergence and spread in recent years of biometrically-interfacing wearable devices and technology — often doing things like counting steps or monitoring heart rate — might there be ways to accurately detect and quantify a driver's actual fatigue levels?

The reality in 2017 is that those are hardly far-fetched propositions. It's an era when technology is becoming quite adept with things like biometrics as well as mapping and tracking data in near-real time and over various periods of time.

In our latest examination of fatigue-fighting systems, we heard about two very different wearable devices as well as a data-based fatigue-detection and analysis service. Fleet Owner also got a walk-through of a fuel hauler fleet's anti-fatigue program and related policies — and learned how the proof is in the pudding when it comes to reduced collisions because your drivers are better rested and less fatigued.

"HOS regulations certainly have their place in terms of various layers of defense in preventing fatigue-related incidents and accidents," notes Jacob Fiedler, sales director at Fatigue Science, one of the anti-fatigue technology systems companies included in this feature. "The challenge with HOS is that just because you're limiting someone's time behind the wheel, of course, does not guarantee that they're able to take advantage of the rest opportunity and that they're able to obtain adequate sleep, enabling them to operate that [commercial] unit safely," he adds.

Not just truck drivers

One obvious point begs to be made: Fatigue and fatigued driving aren't problems truck drivers have some sort of monopoly on. American workers today very commonly — perhaps nearly stereotypically — say they feel overloaded, overstressed, and yes, maybe a little run down or even exhausted. Have you ever felt tired or fatigued after a day of work when you got behind the wheel to drive home?

There's a very good chance the answer to that is affirmative. "Fatigue is something that is in every workplace in some aspect, and the transportation industry we're a part of is no exception," says Al LaCombe, director of safety and training at Dupré Logistics. Lafayette, LA-based Dupré operates fuel transport, crude oil transport, dedicated fleet and freight brokerage businesses, and has some 950-1,000 drivers operating about 560 trucks.

"Fatigue is something that is in every workplace in some aspect, and the transportation industry we're a part of is no exception."

- Al LaCombe, director of safety and training, Dupré Logistics

Around the turn of the millennium, the carrier decided to examine and find ways to better address driver fatigue. "We identified an opportunity that we could improve on fatigue management," LaCombe says, and the company began by focusing on things like shift consistency. A large portion of Dupré's business is slip-seat operations where "we look at getting a guy out [on a run] and back so the next guy can get on the truck," he explains, "and it's really critical that we try to have consistent start times and end times, which can help with your fatigue management and help a person's biological clock stay in tune."

So whenever a particular driver starts, Dupré looks to make that consistent, "and as much as you possibly can in our industry, you also want to try to have them end consistently — to keep guys to a simulated shift on each of those five days [typically in a driver's weekly schedule], as an example," LaCombe says. "The more consistent you can be with that, the better off your employees will be and the better your opportunity to manage driver fatigue."

On that five days note, Dupré also found it's important for drivers to have two days off in a row, and requires that to be built into their schedules. A driver might work five days and be off two days, for example, or work five days and be off for three. "It's the same for everybody — we need that 'reset.' You need that recovery time," LaCombe contends.

However, with consecutive days off, Dupré cautions that drivers must guard against pushing "weekend mode" a little too long. And that's another thing that just about everyone, not just truck drivers, has done at some point or even does frequently, LaCombe points out.

"You're off for two days, you're catching up on stuff at the house, and then on your last day off, you say, 'Shoot, I've got a couple of things I need to try to knock out before I go to work tomorrow,'" he says. "It's just human. That driver is going to try to get those things done, and if he's not careful, he's not going to be thinking about the minimum preparation needed for work."

From the start, Dupré drivers know and are reminded essentially to "be ready to be ready" to operate a commercial motor vehicle safely when they arrive back to work after two or more days off in a row. Of course, it's not just after those longer breaks but every single time a driver gets behind the wheel.

"You've got to know this and can never forget this," LaCombe contends. "You personally as a professional commercial driver, when you reach for the handle of that truck and put your foot on that first step, you must ask yourself, 'Am I mentally and physically prepared to get out here in this commercial vehicle?'"

'Every day, every shift'

"We don't want you to do anything flashy, but we expect you to do what we hired and trained you to do — every day, every shift, every mile," he continues.

The carrier's efforts to minimize fatigue are reinforced with the company's open-door policy, LaCombe says, whereby drivers who feel like they're having trouble getting overtired on their routes can speak up. "We encourage them to come in, and let's talk about it," he notes. "It takes a lot to say, 'I don't think I should be out there tonight' or 'I don't think I should be out there this morning.' We'll talk to them and say, 'Look, we'll help you through this, but you do have to remember, this is your obligation and this is what the job description calls for.'"

Dupré Logistics has also been keeping electronic driver logs since 2006 via automatic onboard recording devices in its trucks. And while compliance with HOS rules is important, LaCombe notes, it's only one part of the company's proactive approach to identifying and helping reduce fatigue as much as possible. Over time, "our statistics have shown we've been able to reduce crashes by reducing fatigue," he adds.

Another way fleets can investigate improving driver fatigue management is through technologies and services aimed at more precisely identifying fatigue. If you've attended any management and leadership conferences or taken such educational courses, chances are you've heard someone at some point say that you "can't manage what you don't measure," and that's a particularly applicable phrase in this case.

Fatigue is difficult to quantify at a glance, and subjectively self-assessed and adjudged. But scientists have been testing ways to measure fatigue reliably and more meaningfully, even predicting and mapping out exactly how long drivers have before they'll be at higher risk for fatigue-related incidents.

Fatigue Science's Fiedler explains that the company paired its fatigue-measuring technology with a military-sourced analytic model to quantify levels of fatigue. The hardware part of the technology is fairly simple, he explains: It's a motion sensor. Fatigue Science's Readiband device is worn on the wrist and has an accelerometer that detects movement; when movement decreases to a certain very low level, it indicates to the system the person is sleeping.

The Readiband needs about 72 hours' worth of sleep data before the system can begin to predict fatigue levels of the driver, Fiedler notes, "so think of it in terms of three nights of sleep — after three nights, I can start to rely on the [system's] fatigue prediction and use that to inform fitness for duty."

Fatigue Science's Readiband is worn on the wrist and detects and tracks when the user is asleep. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

He says the company has tested its technology against polysomnography, "the gold standard of sleep measurement," and found the Readiband is about 92-93% accurate regarding sleep detection when compared to that benchmark in-laboratory testing. Fatigue Science then combined the Readiband tech with a fatigue modeling system that came from a U.S. Army research lab.

That system — the Sleep Activity Fatigue Task Effectiveness, or SAFTE — uses sleep data that Fatigue Science gathers to determine where a person is in terms of fatigue levels on a scale of 1-100. "So a score of 100 represents a fully rested adult based on an average of eight hours of sleep, but if I had a score of 70, my effectiveness from a cognitive standpoint would be in the neighborhood of being legally impaired by alcohol" at the 0.08% blood alcohol content level that most states consider to be driving under the influence, he tells Fleet Owner.

The value of Fatigue Science's system, Fiedler says, is that it can tell current fatigue level but more importantly, it can forecast how long drivers will be at safe levels of fatigue and when they need to pull over. "From an effectiveness standpoint, [a commercial driver] can see at what point over the course of the day or over the course of the journey they will fall into that fatigue-impaired state," he notes, and the back office and fleet managers can see that information across all their drivers. That gives drivers and managers an opportunity to course-correct.

Right to the source

Another fatigue-measuring device that's getting some notice has its origins in the Australian mining industry. SmartCap's wearable device is inserted into the brim of a baseball cap or other hat and uses an electroencephalogram, or EEG, test. "It's measuring very small microvolts on your skin produced by brainwave activity, so you're measuring brainwaves," says Brady Marcus, director of sales for transport and logistics at SmartCap. "We've been able to put that in an operationally practical, purposeful form."

The system measures brain activity and determines a driver's current alertness level. It uses a color-coded system just like traffic lights: When the driver is showing an alertness level in the green, he or she is "normal" and at low risk of a fatigue-related collision or incident. Then there's a first-warning yellow zone, and drivers get an alert when their readout dips to that point.

"A reading in the yellow means you're at risk of being at risk," Marcus says. "The alert the driver gets is to say, 'Hey, you're still doing fine, but [your alertness level] is starting to go the wrong way. You would want to drink your coffee now, sit up straight, drink some water — something to get yourself back into the green," he adds.

When a person's alertness reading on the SmartCap device dips into the red, "it means you're at high risk of having a microsleep, which is basically when a part of your brain 'reboots' without your permission," Marcus explains. The driver and back office both are alerted if and when a driver goes into the red, "so there's a chance to do something about it, and this is how we can act to prevent drivers from having microsleeps."

Fatigue management services company Circadian was founded to help improve the health, safety and productivity of people who work in 24-hour operations. That includes truck drivers, airline pilots, manufacturing plant workers, and surgeons like company founder and now chairman and CEO Martin Moore-Ede, MD, PhD, who started Circadian after having to work 36-hour shifts in training.

The company begins by doing a gap analysis to determine fatigue risk at an organization, and "what we always recommend as a good starting point is for senior management to recognize that fatigue is something that certainly impacts not only safety record but also driver morale, turnover, absenteeism and productivity, and the company's bottom line," says Andrew Moore-Ede, Martin's son and director of client services at Circadian. "So it's definitely something worth investing in."

Another area the company looks at is how far truck drivers must travel before they begin work in their trucks. "Do you have drivers coming 10 mi. to get to the dispatch center, or do you have people coming 500 mi.? Because the hours-of-service clock could be kicking in at 9 a.m. like they're starting at 'zero' when actually they've already been driving for six hours," he notes.

Drivers who have to make night runs and sleep during the day also frequently have difficulty getting enough rest, Andrew Moore-Ede says, so that's another focus of the Circadian fatigue analysis. The company's modeling technology examines drivers' schedules "in real time and retroactively, looking at drivers' records and inputting when a driver is actually behind the wheel, when they're starting, when they stop, and putting it through a fatigue risk model."

Like Fatigue Science's, Circadian's system also assigns drivers a fatigue risk score from 0-100 — in this latter company's case, however, the higher the score, the higher the risk. "We have the Circadian Alertness Simulator, or CAS for short, that provides a score. A CAS score of 10 is a typical Monday-to-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. worker, while some of the highest scores we've had are in the low-90s and have been people like doctors working in hospitals," he tells Fleet Owner. At a score of 90, a person would be at more than 50 times greater risk of being involved in a Dept. of Transportation-reportable accident.

Nutrition, fitness and fatigue

Not surprisingly for a fatigue management technology and service begun by a physician, Circadian provides training and information to help drivers manage the "trucking lifestyle," like what foods will boost energy and which ultimately are unhealthy and can add to fatigue. That's a point on which Siphiwe Baleka, a former Prime Inc. driver and founder of Fitness Trucking, fully agrees, citing sedentary lifestyle and poor nutrition as underlying contributors to fatigue among truck drivers.

Fitness Trucking has been working with Fatigue Science to help test and validate the Readiband, but also to pair Baleka's workout and healthy lifestyle program specifically tailored for truck drivers with the Fatigue Science system. "If I can help a driver eat healthier and lose weight, the driver will have improved blood pressure, blood glucose levels and so on — and improved sleep is yet another added benefit," he notes.

Baleka points out, however, that fatigue measuring/management systems like that of Fatigue Science may be able to quantify driver fatigue, and he believes that information will come to protect both drivers and carriers. If a driver were to fall into high risk of a fatigue-related crash or incident, the carrier could have it written into shipper contracts that a delivery can be rescheduled within a six-hour window, for example, to accommodate the driver stopping to rest.

"If you have this technology and it's objective and it's trusted by everyone involved, the driver can say, 'My data is showing I've dropped below 70, and I really need to pull over.' And at this point, the fleet manager is saying, 'Yeah, John's a good driver, he's not playing around — and we've got objective data to show it."

"The healthiest drivers are also the most profitable drivers," Baleka continues, emphasizing driver fitness as a bottom-line benefit to fleets. "The healthiest drivers are the safest, they're less risk, they have fewer accidents, and more. Driver health and fitness is a core financial reason for why you want to have a viable program to make your drivers healthy."

About the Author

Aaron Marsh

Before computerization had fully taken hold and automotive work took someone who speaks engine, Aaron grew up in Upstate New York taking cars apart and fixing and rewiring them, keeping more than a few great jalopies (classics) on the road that probably didn't deserve to be. He spent a decade inside the Beltway covering Congress and the intricacies of the health care system before a stint in local New England news, picking up awards for both pen and camera.

He wrote about you-name-it, from transportation and law and the courts to events of all kinds and telecommunications, and landed in trucking when he joined FleetOwner in July 2015. Long an editorial leader, he was a keeper of knowledge at FleetOwner ready to dive in on the technical and the topical inside and all-around trucking—and still turned a wrench or two. Or three. 

Aaron previously wrote for FleetOwner. 

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