- National Transport Insurance
THE THREE BIGGEST CAUSES OF TRUCK CRASHES … AND HOW TO AVOID THEM
Part One: Driver Fatigue
In the first of a three-part series, we look at one of the three biggest causes of truck crashes – fatigue – and offer expert advice on how to reduce the risks of a fatigue-related accident.
If you are relying solely on being compliant with work-hour limits, you are not effectively managing the risk posed by fatigue
The proportion of major truck crashes caused by fatigue has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, principally due to the introduction of driving hours reforms and standardised logbooks in 2008 and a shift away from the previous industry mentality of “just keep driving until the job is done”.
Our latest NTARC Major Accident Report shows the share of accidents attributable to fatigue has fallen from a high of 27.3 per cent in 2005 to a low of eight per cent in 2019, before rising slightly to 8.2 per cent in 2021.
Despite the vast improvement, fatigue remains a significant problem for the industry, notes NTI Transport Research Manager Adam Gibson – who has authored the report since 2019.
The latest NTARC report found fatigue remains the biggest cause of truck driver deaths, accounting for 34.8 per cent of fatalities, and highlights flaws in relying solely on driving hours restrictions to address the underlying causes of fatigue, he believes.
“It is important to distinguish between the question of work-hours compliance and fatigue as a cause of serious crashes,” Gibson stresses.
“Whilst there is obviously some relationship between hours worked and fatigue, there are obvious limitations to this approach, as it ignores numerous other factors including, but not limited to, the quantity and quality of the rest achieved during breaks, incompatibility between a driver’s sleep and the mandated rest periods, and broader issues around driver health and wellbeing.
“Given that the shortcomings of a purely work-hour-limits approach are readily apparent and widely understood as a transport operator, if you are relying solely on being compliant with work-hour limits, you are not effectively managing the risk posed by fatigue.”
Here’s what good fatigue management for truck divers looks like, according to Gibson.
Keys to Driver Fatigue Management in the Transport Industry
Gibson suggests the first element to consider is providing an environment which supports effective fatigue management, including:
- Are the company’s expectations around fatigue management clearly explained to all staff who influence or are affected by decisions around fatigue management?
- Do these expectations empower the driver to make decisions around their fitness to drive and support them when they do so?
- Are these expectations effectively documented in a place which is accessible to staff?
- Are the company’s decisions and behaviours consistent with both the expectations and policies?
- Are personnel in a position of authority held to account when they act or allow others to act in a manner inconsistent with these expectations and policies (eg does responsibility flow upwards or only downwards)?
“If your driver isn’t clear on what is expected of him/her and is not confident of the support of leaders when electing to stop driving or to not commence a journey at all, then it is highly likely that you’ll end up with fatigued drivers behind the wheel of your trucks,” Gibson argues.
A Holistic Approach
The next issue, according to Gibson, is to ensure personnel understand the factors which may result in elevated risk of fatigue incidents.
He contends a common mistake is to assume all fatigue issues arise from factors which relate to the business and which occur during work.
“Effective management of fatigue requires that you recognise that drivers are human beings and their lives continue away from the truck,” Gibson says.
He lists factors which could influence a driver’s ability to safely operate the vehicle as:
- Their physical health, both in terms of acute illnesses and chronic conditions such as obesity or diabetes.
- Their mental health, including both diagnosed and undiagnosed conditions.
- Their psychological and emotional well-being.
- Factors from their home lives such as relationship stress, an unwell child or moving house.
- Disruptions to healthy sleep due to work factors, such as non-air-conditioned sleeper cabs, noise from other users of rest areas or a poor-quality mattress in a bunkhouse at a depot.
- A change in work schedule, such as shifting from day to night shift or returning to work after a period of leave.
“In reviewing your approach to managing fatigue, you need to consider whether staff inside your business would recognise these risk factors and whether they would be willing and able to respond appropriately,” he notes.
Gibson adds: “Truck drivers generally have poor access to medical care and a study by QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation found that two thirds of truck drivers were obese, over double the rate in the general Australian population.
“Supporting a driver to access primary healthcare networks, to make better dietary and exercise decisions, and in particular to be aware of, diagnose and treat sleep apnoea can all have significant positive impacts on risk of fatigue crashes, employee engagement and general quality of life.”
Gibson notes there are now a number of technologies on the market which seek to manage the risk of fatigue-related crashes directly.
They can be grouped into three general approaches, namely:
- Tracking blink rate as a proxy for alertness through use of specialised glasses containing a sensor array.
- Using infra-red cameras to build a three-dimensional model of the driver’s face and track where the driver is looking, when they are closing their eyes and for how long and the direction their head is facing.
- Using sensors built into a hat or head band to track the driver’s brain waves to assess their ability to resist falling asleep.
Some of the systems warn the driver (and supervisor/s) when they’re at high risk of falling asleep, while others rely on real-time alerts to wake the driver and get them to respond.
While these technologies provide tools to assist in monitoring and managing fatigue, Gibson contends they don’t solve the issue and should be considered a back-up to good fatigue management practices.
“These technologies can be thought of as being similar to a reserve parachute,” he suggests.
“If you’re relying on your reserve parachute regularly, then something is clearly wrong with your primary parachute (being your main fatigue management processes).”
The other key consideration in the effective roll-out of fatigue monitoring technology, Gibson adds, is to ensure you effectively communicate with affected staff and follow good change-management practices.
“This means you need to communicate openly and early around the reasons for the roll-out of the technology, how your people will be affected, where they can find more information, and who to speak to if they have questions or issues,” he concludes.