There's a killer in our midst, stalking fleet managers, mechanics and drivers. It leaves no trace at the scene of its crimes, but everyone in this industry knows its name: fatigue. Though fatigue is a growing problem, most of the time we ignore it.

After the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was forced to shelve its attempt to reform hours-of-service regulations, fatigue largely fell off trucking's radar screen. Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the war in Afghanistan and the first economic recession in a decade — pushing fatigue right off the map altogether. Fleets are also dealing with huge insurance increases, a glut of used trucks, and a shortage of drivers and mechanics. Fatigue is way, way down the list of things to worry about.

But now is the time to bring the focus back, precisely because fleets are faced with a variety of economic issues, as well as an acute need for better security.

Sleep research conducted by the Air Force has uncovered some surprising findings. For example, if you've been awake for 24 hours straight, your body acts as though it has a blood alcohol level of 0.1%. That's enough to get you thrown in jail in a lot of states if you're behind the wheel. Go two to three days without sleep, and you start having hallucinations. After three days, you start having seizures. Go ten days or more without sleep and you die.

Then there's the phenomenon known as the “microsleep.” If you've been up 24 hours, your body starts taking 6- to 12-sec. mini-naps. These “microsleep” periods occur with your eyes open, by the way; you don't even know it's happening. This may not sound like much time. But consider this: At 60 mph, a fully loaded 18-wheeler travels over 500 ft. in 6 sec. That's more than enough time and space for something really bad to happen.

But it's not just drivers who have to worry about fatigue — mechanics and managers do, too. The National Sleep Foundation found that while experts recommend at least eight hours of sleep a night for adults to function properly, most people sleep just under seven hours a night during the work week.

The group's annual survey of sleep patterns has unearthed even more disquieting information. About 51% of the American workforce reports that sleepiness on the job interferes with the amount of work they get done. Nearly one out of five adults report making occasional or frequent work errors due to sleepiness. Overall, employees estimate that the quality and quantity of their work is diminished by about 30% when they're sleepy.

With the heightened security demands fleets are facing today, we can't afford to let fatigue get lost in the shuffle. Fatigue can slow reaction times just when we need them to be at their sharpest.

Maybe it's time to take a closer look at your employees' sleep patterns. While some may need only two or three hours of sleep a night, others might need nine to be fully rested.

Are naps a possibility for your drivers? Some workplace experts recommend a 20-min. nap every day during the body's “slow” time between noon and 4 p.m. While a 20-min. nap can refresh the body, a longer nap puts the body into deeper sleep, causing that slow “sleep hangover” feeling when you wake up.

Whatever the solution to the problem, we must put fatigue back on our radar screens. If you're not careful, it can be the straw that breaks the camel's back.