Fidgeting, head swaying, jerking, slow eyelid closures so blinks become more like closures instead of actual blinks, yawning …

Experience any of these symptoms lately? It could be fatigue. And that could cause serious problems for commercial drivers.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy/fatigued driving accounts for 72,000 crashes per year and more than 800 deaths. Dr. Erin Mabry, a senior research associate at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s (VTTI) Center for Truck and Bus Safety, said the average person needs seven to eight hours of sleep per night. But many commercial truck drivers, she said, get only half that.

VTTI is part of a multi-year collaborative research effort to develop, test and evaluate components of a fatigue management program (FMP) – the North American Fatigue Management Program (NAFMP) – for commercial vehicle operators.

“By the time that you’re feeling fatigued and tired, you’re way past the point of being safe on the road,” Mabry said, noting the differences between sleepiness and fatigue. Sleepiness, she said, is sleep related, and though fatigue could evolve from sleep deprivation, it can also occur from monotonous driving or eyes becoming fatigued from staring at the road too long.

According to Mabry, high risk factors for fatigue include:

  • Driving alone
  • Driving on monotonous roads
  • Driving for long periods of time
  • High and low traffic volumes
  • Driving at circadian peaks and lulls

She noted that there is short-term and long-term fatigue. Short-term fatigue could be caused by one poor night of sleep. Whereas long-term fatigue would be several long days of driving coupled with short nights of sleep. And that is what leads to risky driving behaviors – poor decision making, decrements of performance, reduced field of vision, tunnel vision – that can cause serious accidents.

The purpose of the FMP is to understand the issues, opportunities and challenges inherent in managing operator fatigue in commercial trucking. The NAFMP was developed in parts of Canada and the U.S. and through four research, development and testing phases.

Phase 1 included a series of focus groups with motor carriers to assist in the project design. Researchers identified fatigue management requirements and developed an approach intended for drivers, dispatchers and company managers. 

Phase 2 involved the development of educational and training materials. Procedures for field testing the FMP were developed and assessed, and field data collection was completed in Alberta, Quebec, and Texas, according to NAFMP. 

Phase 3 involved an operational field test with 77 commercial drivers in Alberta, Quebec, and California. According to the program, positive trends in sleep duration and sleep efficiency were found post-FMP implementation. According to NAFMP, other post-implementation findings include:

  • Improved reported sleep quality on duty days
  • 20 minutes longer main sleep on duty days
  • Duty day main period sleep duration and sleep efficiency improved compared to rest days
  • Drivers reported less fatigue (trend)
  • Reduction in proportion of drivers reporting critical events (29% from 46%) and 40% reduction in number of critical events per km driven

Based on the research, findings and operational data from the first three phases, Phase 4 involved development of the recommended guidelines, implementation manual, and training materials and the development of the NAFMP website.

That’s where VTTI came in.