Driver Distraction and Fatigue as a Major Cause of Truck Accidents

Given the size of 18-wheelers and semi-trucks, and the speed at which they can travel, accidents involving these vehicles can have catastrophic consequences for not just the truck driver...

Given the size of 18-wheelers and semi-trucks, and the speed at which they can travel, accidents involving these vehicles can have catastrophic consequences for not just the truck driver but others in the vicinity as well. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2007, a total of 413,000 large trucks were involved in traffic accidents where 4,584 of these were fatal. Although the overall number of large truck crashes has since dropped to 143, 830 in 2015, the number of fatalities remained high at 4,358.

In light of the devastating loss brought on by these accidents, it is crucial to assess their cause and determine what measures can be put in place to reduce the frequency of truck crashes on American roadways. Although numerous factors can contribute to a truck accident like mechanical failure, manufacturing defects, driving while intoxicated, and speeding, two leading causes of these accidents are driving while fatigued, and distracted driving. This blog post addresses each of these grave concerns individually.

Driving While Fatigued

According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2005 Sleep in America poll, 60 percent of Americans who have a driver’s license report that they had driven a car or motor vehicle while feeling sleepy, in the past year. While this is extremely dangerous in any motor vehicle, it is especially risky when the driver is behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler or semi-truck! So why do truck drivers do it?

Due to the demanding nature of their work, truck drivers often push themselves beyond their limits and succumb to fatigue, causing horrific accidents. Rushing to meet tight deadlines for delivery of their load, truck drivers often have to start out early, and drive till late at night, forgoing sleep they desperately need and not able to get the quality of sleep that will energize them when they do manage to rest. The irregular hours they maintain wreak havoc on their body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and impact the driver’s ability to function at his/her maximum capacity. Truck drivers are also paid based on the number of miles they drive, pushing them to ignore their tiredness and drive for as long as they can so that they earn more money.

As a consequence of the fatigue that plagues truck drivers, they display slow reaction time, have difficulty assessing situations on the road quickly and worse, they risk falling asleep at the wheel. When drivers struggle with fatigue, it manifests in behavior like experiencing heavy eyelids, frequent yawning, allowing the vehicle to drift over the road lines, fluctuating speed for no reason, misjudging traffic situations, feeling irritable and daydreaming.

To curb the excessive strain faced by truck drivers and to make sure they get the rest they need, federal regulations mandate that truck drivers work for a maximum of 14 hours a day, from which they can drive only for 11 hours. Also, the truck driver is not permitted to drive until he/she has been off-duty for 10 consecutive hours before the start of a new shift. Additionally, the driver is not allowed to drive after being on the road for 60 hours in seven consecutive days, or for 70 hours in eight consecutive days. However, in spite of these regulations, truck accidents are still, sadly, far too common.

That’s why it is crucial for trucking companies and the drivers themselves to face this problem head-on and to put processes in place that will reduce the frequency of truck accidents caused by fatigue. Trucking company managers must understand that it is in their better interest to protect their drivers, and insist that drivers follow protocol without exception to keep from becoming overly fatigued. Drivers can also be empowered to assess their fatigue levels by being provided fatigue management training that helps them stay aware of their energy levels, allows them to understand the need for enough sleep and helps them see how the lack of sleep will impact their health and overall quality of life.

Distracted Driving, the official U.S. government website for distracted driving defines distracted driving as ‘any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.’ These activities can include texting, operating a cellphone or smartphone, eating and drinking, grooming, reading a book or a map, using a navigation system, speaking with passengers, watching a video, and adjusting the radio, CD player or MP3 player.

Distracted driving is fast becoming one of the leading causes of motor accidents in the United States. In 2014 alone, 3,179 people died as a consequence of distracted driving, and 431,000 were injured.

What makes distracted driving so dangerous is the fact that the driver is operating the vehicle while his/her hands, eyes or mind has shifted away from the task of driving. Truck drivers are particularly susceptible to distracted driving because of the monotonous nature of their job. Driving thousands of miles across the country each week, these drivers are often alone and bored in their vehicle and seek to entertain themselves. However, this instead ends up distracting the driver, compromising his/her reaction time and ability to make split-second decisions. As a result of not concentrating on the road, many drivers have veered off of their lane into another vehicle, failed to notice a stop sign and rear-ended another vehicle, or simply lost control of the truck, causing devastating injury to nearby innocent motorists, motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

Although there are many ways a driver can be distracted, using a cellphone to dial or text someone is one of the most dangerous distractions, especially when the driver is behind the wheel of a fast-moving, 40-ton machine. That’s why in January 2010, a federal ban was imposed prohibiting texting by drivers of commercial vehicles like large trucks and buses. The ban calls for civil or criminal penalties of up to $2,750 for truck or bus drivers who violate this regulation.

Emphasizing the need to reduce the widespread occurrence of distracted driving, the Department of Transport at the Distracted Driving Summit of 2009 made valuable recommendations to curb distraction on the road and improve safety. These recommendations include:

  • Managers in trucking companies educating their drivers about the need to avoid distracting behavior like reaching for sunglasses, adjusting the music, looking at a map, etc.
  • Managers should discourage drivers from carrying devices into the vehicle like music systems, cellphones, etc.
  • Instructing a driver to use dispatching devices only once he/she has pulled over to the side of the road
  • Making sure drivers use voice-activated, hands-free dialing on their phones, and do not manually dial while driving
  • Ensuring that drivers never read, write or look at maps while driving as they have to take their eyes off the road to do this
  • Encouraging designers to explore making a more hands-free interface in the truck to help drivers avoid being distracted

Every time a truck driver is fatigued or distracted behind the wheel, he/she puts someone’s life at risk. Help spread awareness of the dangers associated with these actions by sharing this article.

If you would also like to share your thoughts on the role fatigue and distracted driving play in causing truck accidents, or if you have any questions, please leave us a comment below.

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