Dealing with driver fatigue

by James Menzies

KING CITY, Ont. — Driver behaviour is to blame for as many as 90% of commercial motor vehicle crashes – a startling fact that has sent Transport Canada’s Pierre Thiffault in search of scientific ways to reduce crashes.

Thiffault, who authored the 2011 report Addressing Human Factors in the Motor Carrier Industry in Canada, told an audience at the Private Motor Truck Council’s annual conference that there are two primary mistakes drivers make that result in a wreck: decision errors and recognition errors.

Decision errors encompass risky behaviours and conscious, bad decisions, while recognition errors are the result of inattention. Working along with the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrator’s Human Factors and Motor Carrier Safety Task Force, Thiffault and his colleagues have undergone a three-phase approach to reviewing Canada’s commercial vehicle crashes and come up with scientifically-supported ways to reduce or eliminate them. Canada hasn’t undergone a crash causation study, as the US has, but considerable research has been undertaken and a set of recommendations set out.

While it’s difficult to influence the driving behaviours of the motoring public at large, Thiffault told PMTC members that carriers have a wonderful opportunity to improve the behaviour of their drivers. This is because they are dealing with a smaller pool of vehicles and can incent or punish certain behaviours.

The 45 recommendations Thiffault’s task force has come up with to reduce crashes reflect those issues identified by the motor carrier community.

“This tells me industry understands the issues and it is clear to me what the industry is asking for in terms of support, guidelines and leadership from government,” Thiffault said.

For starters, Thiffault said carriers that simply enforce compliance with hours-of-service rules are not doing enough.

“The hours-of-service rules alone are not sufficient,” he said. “(The HoS rules) are important, they’re well done and they’re scientific. But a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t cure every problem. The Canadian hours-of-service rules are pretty lenient. They allow more driving and more on-duty time than anywhere in the world. If you just do HoS and have drivers drive to the limit, they won’t be free of fatigue; fatigue is more complicated than that.”

Thiffault compared HoS rules to the foundation for a house. “You need to build on top of this foundation.”

Ideally, Thiffault said, drivers need to be better educated on the science of fatigue so they can learn to “self-manage” alertness. For example, he said when a driver begins to exhibit the telltale signs of fatigue – ie. heavy eyelids, zoning out – that it is too late to combat.

“We try to defy fatigue with effort and that’s a very dangerous thing to do,” Thiffault said. “We need to understand the relationship between feeling fatigue and loss of consciousness. When you start to fell it, you’ve been fatigued for a long time. Studies show you were already a bad driver even before you began to feel (tired).”

Thiffault said when you begin to feel tired, you are closer to losing consciousness than you think.

Another misunderstanding is that it’s possible to curtail fatigue by taking a short break, going for a walk or drinking a coffee or energy drink. Thiffault said taking a nap is the only true way to deal with fatigue. The CCMTA has recommended undertaking a study that would explore why drivers make bad decisions to continue driving while tired. Thiffault suspects the pay-by-the-mile compensation model that’s common in the industry may be a culprit.

“One of the reasons drivers keep driving while drowsy is certainly, in part, related to…the economic structure of the industry and the way they are paid,” he said. “If you pay someone by the mile, you motivate them to do more miles and drive longer hours and they may drive faster, so you’re motivating speeding and fatigue.”

Thiffault said a study will soon be conducted in the US to see if there’s a relationship between how drivers are paid and their safety. He said existing research already shows there’s a “linear relationship between driver wages and safety. The more you pay your driver, the safer they are.”

Thiffault said his research has also found not enough is done to train entry-level drivers on how to manage fatigue. Most training schools provide the skills required to drive a truck and don’t delve into fatigue management or crash causation.

“We have suggested a research project that would look at the training curriculum throughout the country,” he said. Drivers also should be taught how to manage fatigue while off-duty. For instance, he said drivers need to maximize their rest while at home, comparing rest to money in the bank that can be spent while on the road. If you leave home on a trip with the sleep bank depleted, Thiffault said it’s a recipe for disaster.

The CCMTA is also looking at the effectiveness of high- and low-tech solutions for reducing fatigue-related crashes. Thiffault said it’s known rumble strips are a good way to wake up a tired driver, but would like to see further research into the business case behind installing rumble strips so the provinces can justify the expense.

But fatigue isn’t the only concern for road safety advocates; driver distraction remains an issue. Again, Thiffault thinks drivers need more training on how to understand the root causes of distracted driving. He acknowledged it’s inevitable that drivers will do things inside the cab, such as consult a GPS screen, snack, change the radio station, etc. He pointed out there are two things drivers do while behind the wheel: Driving and everything else. Driving is the primary responsibility, but the workload required to steer the truck safely down the road varies greatly depending on factors such as traffic, weather conditions, etc.

Thiffault said drivers should put off doing secondary things until the driving workload is light, for example when there are no other vehicles nearby and the road ahead is straight. That way, drivers aren’t trying to process too much at one time.

“Sometimes the primary task workload is very low,” Thiffault said. “If you engage in a secondary, non-driving task, the risk is low – maybe even beneficial since it helps you deal with monotony. What you want is for drivers to consider the workload of the primary task before they engage in a secondary task. If they do that properly, you’ll have the proper decision-making process before engaging in a secondary activity and there wouldn’t be any distracted driving crashes, or very few of them. But drivers don’t consider the workload of the primary activity.”

Thiffault also challenged the idea that using hands-free devices while driving contributes to greater road safety. He said the act of dialing is lower-risk with a hands-free device, but the conversation itself with someone that’s not in the cab is equally distracting whether the phone is handheld or hands-free.

“Once you are talking, (hands-free phones) are as dangerous (as handheld),” he said. “Speaking with someone who is not there has a very high workload compared to speaking to someone who is there (inside the vehicle).”

Carriers can reduce their crashes by identifying risk-taking drivers, Thiffault said, and risk-takers exist even among commercial drivers, though at a lower level than within the general driving population. While carriers and law enforcement have worked to raise awareness about risky driving behaviours, Thiffault said the message isn’t getting through.

“Education and enforcement are not working well with high-risk behaviour,” he said, noting these drivers undertake risky behaviours knowing they are risky.

Thiffault also said it’s no longer sufficient to focus on passive safety solutions such as better roads and safer vehicles. That effort began in the 1950s and has seen crash-related fatalities plunge, but recently there has been a “flatlining” of the road safety stats.

More research needs to be done to identify how a driver’s personality and attitude influence their risk perception and likelihood to take risks, Thiffault claimed.

Meanwhile, Thiffault encouraged carriers to employ wellness programs for drivers that promote a healthy lifestyle. He also said safety programs should incent good behaviour, not just punish mistakes.

“Bringing reinforcement is more efficient than bringing punishment,” he said. “Providing an incentive when they do the right thing is a lot better than doing punishment when they don’t. When you’re punishing them, you are creating a negative safety culture.”

He said the CCMTA would like to see a government-created, scientifically backed incentive program created and provided to industry.

Thiffault’s whopping 310-page report on human factors in commercial vehicle crashes can be downloaded here:

Help is on the way

KING CITY, Ont. — It’s been 12 years in the making, but a comprehensive North American fatigue management plan will soon be available.

The project, which encompasses extensive sleep research in the US and Canada, will yield results in July, in the form of a Web site containing 10 modules carriers can use to implement a fatigue management plan.

Transport Canada’s Pierre Thiffault told a PMTC audience the Web site will be launched in mid-July. It will feature an ROI calculator so fleets can better understand what fatigue-related crashes are costing them.

The modules will educate carriers and drivers on the causes of fatigue and how to prevent it. The information will also be useful to dispatchers and even drivers’ families, Thiffault said.

The site will continue to be updated. For instance, napping guidelines will be added, which demonstrate the best napping techniques and times for maximum restoration.

“It will tell a driver how they should nap, and how long they should nap depending on the schedule they are on,” Thiffault said.

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