Understanding and combating driver fatigue

by James Menzies

You may not yet realize it, but July 10 marked an important day in Canadian trucking history. The otherwise ordinary day marked the long-awaited launch of the North American Fatigue Management Program (NAFMP).

I remember hearing Roger Clarke – then of Alberta Transportation, but since retired, to give you an idea of how long this program was in the making – discuss this program 10 years ago at what was either an Alberta Trucking Association or Alberta Truck Safety Association event. Yes, this program even pre-dated the formation of the Alberta Motor Transport Association, which brought together the two organizations.

Back then, very few people were talking about driver fatigue. Nobody had ever heard of sleep apnea. A different set of hours-of-service rules governed our industry. Yet, even then, a small group of organizations and individuals were acutely aware of the affects fatigue has on commercial drivers and were working to develop a program that would increase awareness about fatigue, its causes and how to effectively manage it.

Over the past decade, I’d hear about this program on occasion, and wonder if it would ever see the light of day. Talk of the NAFMP picked up early this year and then, without a lot of fanfare, the program was finally released to the industry July 10, in the form of a Web site containing vast amounts of information about fatigue management. More specifically, you will find at www.nafmp.com a series of 10 learning modules designed for fleet executives, safety managers, drivers and even their families. I want to address this latter point for just a minute.

Too often in this industry, we focus all our training initiatives on the driver, without considering the important role their families have to play. This is especially true when it comes to fatigue. Driving can be a grueling job and home time so limited, that often drivers are under as much pressure to be productive at home as they are while on the road.

Who hasn’t returned home after a long trip, feeling run down, only to be greeted by a warm embrace and a kiss and then handed the dreaded honey-do list? What long-haul driver hasn’t spent a full weekend catching up with family, only to head back out on the road feeling more fatigued than when they arrived home?

I once heard a heart-wrenching story of a young grandfather who would head out Sunday nights, and one weekend before doing so spent all day Sunday when he would normally be resting, playing with his grandchildren. He only made it a few hundred kilometres that Sunday night before falling asleep at the wheel and losing his life. It breaks my heart to think that in the back of his mind, this driver was likely acutely aware that he should be sleeping, but didn’t want to dissapoint his grandkids.

It is vitally important that drivers’ families are educated on fatigue and come to understand the rest requirements of their loved ones. The new NAFMP includes an entire section just for driver spouses and families. You can make the argument that no fatigue management program is complete, unless it addresses home time.

A decade of work has gone into the development of the NAFMP and that may seem to be excessive. But fatigue is an incredibly complex subject. We have all, at one time or another, dealt with fatigue in our own, ineffective ways. Who hasn’t rolled down the windows and cranked the stereo and driven on?

At the recent Private Motor Truck Council of Canada conference, I was struck by a comment from Transport Canada researcher Pierre Thiffault, who said: “We try to defy fatigue with effort, and that’s a very dangerous thing to do.” Been there. Now, for the first time, there’s a comprehensive learning centre on driver fatigue, the science behind it, and information on how we can effectively manage it. Let’s put this site to good use.

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