Comment: How truckers can avoid driver fatigue

By: David Boyce, NZ Trucking Association

Fatigue is the cause of many workplace accidents, including a significant number of truck crashes. Here's how you can prevent it.

Every year, approximately 1,200,000 people are killed in road accidents worldwide. It’s a sobering statistic.

In 2018, the New Zealand road toll was nearly 400 people, the highest number of people killed on our roads in the last decade. For 2017, the number was 378 people killed on New Zealand roads.


Of this total, a truck was involved in 82 fatalities, and more than 1000 people suffered serious and minor injuries. That’s not to say that the truck was at fault in all these incidents. But what is disturbing is that fatigue was a factor in 12% of fatal incidents.

Being fatigued significantly increases the risk of a crash. It makes us less aware of what is happening on the road and impairs our ability to respond quickly and safely if a dangerous situation arises.

Driver fatigue or tiredness is a term used to describe the experience of being sleepy, tired, or exhausted. Some of the symptoms of fatigue include:

  • Inconsistent speed and steering
  • Difficulty keeping eyes focused
  • Frequent yawning
  • Loss of concentration
  • Reduced awareness of other road users
  • Missing a turnoff or taking the wrong road
  • Memory lapses; you can’t remember the last 20km
  • Drifting out of your lane
  • Failure to check your mirrors
  • Your eyes feel heavy and you have difficulty keeping your head up

Every person has a built-in body clock in the brain that determines when we feel sleepy. This is commonly referred to as the circadian rhythm and can vary depending on several factors, including your natural sleep-wake cycle, overall health, and age.

It’s common for many people to feel sleepy between 3am and 5am and between 3pm and 5pm. Chronic sleep debt—arising from acute sleep debt—or accumulated sleep debt are among the most commonly known causes of fatigue.

Different individuals require different amounts of sleep. However, seven to eight hours is the average amount of sleep required by most adults. Acute sleep debt usually occurs over a short period of time. For example, keeping awake for a long period of time immediately prior to driving.

Certain types of illnesses or conditions, including undiagnosed conditions such as sleep apnoea can cause fatigue. These conditions can contribute to cumulative sleep debt. The use of some medications may also cause or exacerbate fatigue.

Fatigue can be exacerbated using alcohol or drugs, environmental stresses during sleep (such as light, heat and noise), distraction, stress, schedule demands, obesity/bad dietary habits, and lifestyle choices.

As an employer, you have obligations under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 2015 to look after the health and safety of your employees. This is called a ‘primary duty of care’.

Employer’s responsibilities include: 

  • providing and maintaining a work environment that is without risks to health and safety
  • providing and maintaining safe plant (including vehicles) and structures
  • providing and maintaining safe systems of work
  • ensuring the safe use, handling, and storage of plant, structures, and substances
  • providing adequate facilities for the welfare of employees, including ensuring access to those facilities
  • providing any information, training, instruction, or supervision that is necessary to protect all people from risks to their health and safety while at work
  • monitoring the health of workers and the conditions at the workplace for the purpose of preventing injury or illness of workers

An important factor for the trucking industry to be aware of is that everyone involved in the business, including directors, shareholders, managers, supervisors, storemen, drivers, dispatchers, etc. have a primary duty of care to be responsible for the health and safety of anyone that they influence or direct within their business or undertaking, including themselves.

Trucking operators must not only comply with the Land Transport Act Worktime and Logbook requirements, but they must also meet their primary duty of care obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.

Fatigue is the cause of many workplace accidents, including a significant number of truck crashes. It reduces performance and productivity in your business. How you manage fatigue at your workplace will directly impact on the success of your business.

A responsible employer should implement a fatigue management policy as part of their overall health and safety policies and procedures. This policy should include the following:

  • Identifying any hazards that contribute to fatigue.
  • Assessing the risks of these hazards.
  • Implement and maintain measures to control these risks.
  • Include a review provision that measures the effectiveness of the controls.

Other policies that should be included:

  • Drivers are given written notice of schedules, that include expected start and finish times, that make allowances for rest breaks, vehicle breakdowns, meals and any legal requirements (including speed and work time/logbook requirements).
  • Any significant schedule changes are advised to drivers at least 24 hours in advance.
  • Dispatchers and schedulers are made aware of driving hours requirements and are aware of the management policy that they are not to cause drivers to breach these requirements.
  • Avoid working arrangements that provide incentives to work excessive hours.
  • Ensure that there are adequate workers and other resources available to get the work done, without placing excessive demands on staff.

It’s critical that drivers are encouraged to report when they are fatigued. As part of your fatigue management policy, it’s appropriate to provide driver training, which should include the following:

  • The causes, signs, and risks of fatigue
  • Sleep education and tips for when you are on the road and at home
  • The challenges of driving at different times of the day, and how to adapt to them
  • Healthy eating choices and exercise
  • How you can get a better balance between work, family, and social activities
  • How to remain alert

As a responsible driver, you have an obligation to manage your own fatigue. Some fatigue management skills include:

  • Take regular short breaks, get out of the cab and walk around the vehicle
  • Regularly eat healthy food, avoid food with high fat, sugar or salt content
  • Drink plenty of water, avoid energy drinks, alcohol, and high caffeine drinks
  • Check your prescription medications, as some can cause drowsiness, check with your doctor if you are unsure
  • Avoid using drugs to manage your fatigue
  • Keep the cab well ventilated at a comfortable temperature
  • Exercise regularly
  • Manage your work time within legislated maximums
  • Learn to understand the symptoms of fatigue
  • Get support at home to ensure you have a peaceful sleep
  • Seek assistance to manage stress in your life
  • Review your lifestyle choices

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