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Safety and Compliance: The Rhythm Method Works

by John Oldfield

Do you ever have days when you just can't seem to stay awake? Do you ever have difficulty concentrating? Do you often feel more tired upon waking than you felt when you went to sleep? If so, you're likely suffering from a form of jet lag specific to truck drivers. Our antiquated hours-of-service regulations are at least partly to blame, but the proposed revisions will make your lives a lot less tiring.

Today's regs actually prevent drivers from sleeping when the body is naturally inclined to sleep, while forcing them to stay awake at times when they should be asleep. Scheduling must also shoulder its share of the blame, but combine the two and I don't think you could come up with a more dangerous regimen if you tried. How many other high-risk occupations can you think of where people are actually encouraged to trade sleep time for the ability to work longer? That's what happens with creative logging, and the scary thing is, it's all neatly packaged and marketed under the heading of safety.

The American regulations, which push you into an 18-hour cycle (10 driving/8 off), are harder on the body than ours, but in either case, the rules force you into bed at a different time every day. This seriously screws up the body's natural sleep/awake patterns, otherwise known as the circadian rhythm. And rhythm is the key to getting proper sleep. Go to sleep at a predictable time, sleep for a predictable length of time, and wake up at a predictable time. The body hates surprises.

The circadian rhythm is the body's cycle, as much a part of our nature as eating or going to the bathroom, that dictates when we should be sleeping and when we can remain awake. It's built such that we're more inclined to sleep between midnight and 6:00 am, and again during a brief period in the afternoon. Circumvent that cycle long enough, and the body will eventually demand repayment of the sleep debt.

Just like your bank account, you can have a deficit in your sleep account. If you consistently sleep less than you should, or sleep at times that are in conflict with your circadian rhythm, the effects of sleep loss will accumulate over time and do not dissipate. Once you are in a sleep deficit position, you'll perform at below-normal levels. And at some point you'll become dangerous.

The proposed new regulations seek to regulate the body's sleep intervals so that drivers will get: A) more rest, and B) will get that rest before the need for sleep becomes a judgement call.

Interestingly, it's been proven that people are generally poor judges of their own level of tiredness. Many people who nod off at the wheel report that they did not feel excessively tired just prior to falling asleep. How many times have you felt your steer tire grab a piece of the shoulder when you thought you were wide awake?

The University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety have just released an extensive study called "Why do People Have Drowsy Driving Crashes." It examined the role of fatigue and sleepiness in crashes and revealed, rather convincingly, that sleep deprivation and/or poor sleep habits contributed to a majority of the crashes studied. Precursors to the fatigue-related crashes included sleeping less than six hours per night, being awake for 20 hours or longer prior to the crash, and frequent driving between midnight and 6:00 in the morning. Drivers interviewed following their sleep-related crashes reported being at the wheel significantly longer than usual before their crash, having been awake for longer on the day of their crash, and having slept fewer hours the night before.

The Proposed Changes

The hours-of-service regulations that we'll almost certainly get propose that:

  • The current minimum off-duty period of 8 hours be increased to 10 hours over a 24-hour period.
  • The 10-hour off-duty period be taken in no less than 8 consecutive hours with the additional 2 hours taken in increments of no less than 30 minutes.
  • The daily maximum on-duty time be reduced from 15 to 14 hours.
  • The maximum daily driving time be revised to 14 hours.
  • The options to reduce the off-duty time from 8 hours to 4 hours (the rest reduction provision) be eliminated.
  • The minimum rest periods in a sleeper berth be increased from 2 hours to 4 hours in co-driver situations.
  • Averaging of on-duty and off-duty time be permitted over a 48-hour period where the daily off-duty time of 10 hours can be reduced to 8 hours, with the shortfall added to the subsequent day, averaged over a 48-hour period. The maximum on-duty time would be 28 hours and the minimum off-duty time would be 20 hours in any 48-hour period.
  • The current three cycles (60 in 7, 70 in 8, 120 in 14) be reduced to two: - a 70-hour basic work cycle with a voluntary 36-hour rest/reset provision, which may be taken at any point, after which the 'clock' is reset, along with a mandatory 24-hour off-duty period to be taken within any 14-day period. - a modified 120-hour/14-day cycle, which contains a voluntary 72-hour rest/reset provision, would remain in place until replaced by an optional distribution cycle to be developed.
  • Switching of cycles would only be permitted after a minimum (rest/reset period) of off-duty time is taken.
  • Sleepiness is a natural response to fatigue, and is often described as a disinclination to continue performing the task at hand. The effects of sleepiness include impaired vigilance, reaction time, memory and co-ordination. Information processing and decision making - vital skills in driving a truck safely - also decline without sufficient sleep. Think back on your last few days of work, examine your sleep patterns, and ask yourself if you're not an accident waiting for a place to happen.

    In fact, research has shown that sleep deprivation has many of the same characteristics as alcohol intoxication. One study showed that a subject kept awake for 24 hours performed at the same level as a person with a BAC (blood alcohol content) of 0.10 - a level high enough to result in an impaired-driving charge.

    Drivers know that there are certain times of the day when it's really tough to stay awake and alert. For most people, profound drowsiness occurs at siesta time - just after lunch - or right around midnight, and then again during that hour or two just before sunrise. Interestingly, if you correlate accident statistics to circadian rhythms you'll find that as our alertness dips during the lulls in our circadian rhythm, accident frequency rises.

    The proposed new rules offer another unique element: they build in a two-hour interval that can, and should, be used for napping. The 10-hour off duty period may be taken in a solid 10-hour block, or in an eight-hour block with the remaining two hours taken at the driver's discretion. A perfect excuse for a nap.

    Here's something to think about: sleep-related crashes have certain characteristics that set them apart from other ones, thereby making them fairly easy to identify. They're more likely to occur at night or in mid-afternoon - times when people have a natural propensity to sleep. They're also more likely to involve a single vehicle running off the road with no indication of braking or other avoidance attempts. In addition to run-off-the-road crashes, sleepy drivers are likely to be over-represented in rear-end and head-on collisions.

    These types of crashes are relatively rare. But police are now beginning to look beyond the obvious cause of a crash, such as an improper lane change, and examine why the driver might have made that improper lane change. The in-depth examinations seem to suggest that many of these types of crashes were indirectly caused by failures in judgement and situational awareness - the first things to go in a sleep-deprived driver.

    There's relief in sight though, with the proposed changes. These changes are necessary to allow individual drivers the flexibility they need to sleep when they're tired without committing perjury on the daily log. If you are frustrated with trying to keep your logs legal while sleeping properly and matching supporting documents, you should actively support these proposed changes.

    So, who's best to decide when it's time for bed? You, of course, and you'll find more flexibility in the proposed regulations than in the current ones, which force you into a state of constant jet lag. Get a copy of the proposed changes, study them, and if you agree that they'll make you safer, voice your opinion to your provincial and federal associations and regulators. Tell them the trucking industry is responsible enough to decide its own lifestyle habits while making the public roadway a safer place.

    John Oldfield is a transportation insurance specialist with the Dalton Timmis Insurance Group in Hamilton, Ontario. He can be reached at 888-385-8466.

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