When it comes to staying alert behind the driver’s wheel, “caffeine is a very useful tool,” according to Todd Dawson, vp of the fatigue management company Circadian. “It does what it's supposed to – it boosts reaction times, but it’s overused in our society. Taken in high amounts, caffeine can not only create health problems, but you build up a tolerance.”

The stimulant effect of the caffeine in two cups of coffee lasts five to seven hours, he said. Instead of drinking coffee throughout the day, perhaps consuming as much as eight cups, truck drivers should drink a cup or two at the start of their work day and then another one or two cups only when they begin to feel drowsy later in the day.

“The benefit [from caffeine] is much higher when it’s used carefully,” Dawson said

Gerald Krueger, a well-known researcher who is currently putting together a report on stimulants, hypnotics and nutritional supplements for the Transportation Research Board, agrees that caffeine used properly is a practical tool to help truck drivers retain alertness during those naturally occurring times when a person becomes drowsy.

What concerns him are the “energy boost” products and other nutritional supplements commonly marketed to drivers at truckstops. While caffeine is often a major component in these products, “there’s not been much good solid medical research published to be able to assess whether they’re good or bad, or whether they produce interactions with other substances like allergy medicines,” Krueger said.

Prescription stimulant drugs have much stronger effects than caffeine, but most of the well-known ones such as amphetamines have serious side effects that after long-term use might include insomnia and addiction. However lately there’s been a good deal of attention focused on a new stimulant compound known as modafinil which is available in the U.S. as the prescription drug ProVigil. Krueger said that while modafinil does boost alertness much like caffeine, an attractive feature is that “while under the influence of modafinil, one can apparently still decide to go to sleep, to take a nap for example, something no other stimulant would permit you to do.”

Krueger also said that the U.S. military administers prescription stimulants, including modafinil, in some very select operational circumstances, but only after evaluating how individuals perform when taking the drugs in controlled settings and then monitoring them closely if they do take them in the field.

“Currently there doesn’t seem to be any practical application in trucking for stimulants other than using caffeine because there’s no way to control their use with a large population like truck drivers,” said Krueger.

“But we shouldn’t hide our head in the sand,” said Krueger. “We should be doing good quality medical research on these compounds to see if there are practical applications for some newer compounds as they are developed.” For example, he pointed out that the U.S. military explored and now safely issues caffeinated chewing gum to tired troops, and this would seem to be an appropriate application for commercial drivers as well.

For now, though, Krueger believes the best solution for drivers is “the natural way.” Combining proper sleep habits with an understanding for their circadian rhythms, “they can use the strengths of knowing more about their own body’s physiology to help manage fatigue,” Krueger noted.