Energy drinks a loaded gun for young drivers?

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TORONTO, Ont. — So-called energy drinks: The new generation of truckers is increasingly relying on them, instead of coffee, to get from point A to Z without the ‘Zs.’ But are they really an effective cure for drowsiness? Or is consumption a loaded gun for drivers who rely on them too heavily?

Researchers at the Transportation Research Board appear to be asking the question, but are unwilling to provide any answers as yet.

“We don’t even have a first draft yet,” was all research project manager Donna L. Vlasak would say when asked what preliminary results are showing. Still, the study, sponsored by the Commercial Truck Safety Synthesis Program, and titled Chemical Substance Effects on Driving Performance: Stimulants, Hypnotics and Nutritional Aids would seem to indicate there are concerns.

Indeed, scientists from the John Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore have called for prominent labeling for energy drinks listing caffeine doses and warning of potential risks. They’re also recommending doctors become familiar with signs of caffeine intoxication, a syndrome recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (psychiatry’s official guidebook of mental illnesses) whose symptoms include nervousness, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, upset stomach, tremors, tachardia (rapid heart beat) and agitation.

In other words, drinking too many energy drinks may actually increase fatigue by depriving drivers of rest when they turn off the engine and cause them to drive more aggressively when they turn it on. Those are serious side effects when you consider that aggressive driving actually caused five times more highway crash fatalities on US highways in 2006 than drowsy driving (30,731 versus 5,464), according to recent figures from a National Cooperative Highway Research Program. And when you consider that the use of energy drinks is growing, not shrinking, among younger and yes, even Canadian drivers, despite the dangers, those side effects become even more alarming.

A recent report from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada indicates that since energy drinks broke into North America in the early 2000s, their use, especially among young males and time-conscious consumers (ie. truck drivers) has increased dramatically. According to the report Market Update: Energy Drinks in North America released in August 2009, “With over 210 brands in the North American market alone and a value growth of 43% from 2003-2008, competition (among energy drink manufacturers) is intense…While there are exceptions (Red Bull and SoBe’s line of juices, elixirs and teas), the energy drink segment is dominated by sales to males, most notably the 20-30 age range. These energy drinks are generally high in sugar, caffeine, taurine and other booster ingredients that claim to increase energy and alertness.”

As the market for young men becomes saturated, states the report, and “as the older generations pay more attention to their energy needs, it creates an opening for new marketing techniques or new entrants with differentiating product claims. Targeting mature consumers based on time pressures may be beneficial for new energy drink brands or product launches. An example is the introduction of energy shots (a new category of energy drinks) into the market.”

Indeed, it appears that, thanks to the “shot,” energy drinks have already become more attractive to an older audience, one not just interested in studying or partying, according to the report, which states that the market for shots increased 100% in 2008 alone. According to the report, “the shots target the older adult market and a wide variety of occupations with non-traditional hours of work such as truck drivers, nurses, and office workers. Overall, these products are pushed by a much tamer advertising campaign, more generic packaging, and promoted by figures that are respected outside of the traditional energy drink celebrity sphere (ie. Lance Armstrong).”

The good news is that brand name shots like 5-Hour Energy, which, at the time of the report had 60% of the market share in convenience stores (including truck stops) and with sales reaching $169.7 million, claim to not just rely on caffeine for their kick. In fact, there is less caffeine in a two-ounce 5-Hour Energy shot than there is in a cup of coffee, a substantial decrease from drinks like Red Bull, which contain the equivalent of several cups. But can you drink just one?

It all comes down to whether drivers over-consume energy drinks, no doubt a question that will be addressed by the Transportation Research Board study currently underway. For now, the data is largely anecdotal. According to industry insiders, age and, to a lesser degree, health-consciousness, is the determining factor.


Older = wiser?

According to older, more seasoned trucking industry professionals, the caffeine and sugar kick provided by most energy drinks, shots or even coffee is a temporary fix and may even get in the way of good driving and good health.

“Our fatigue training emphasizes that, regardless of what you’re using to give you a perk-up when you have a lull, it’s going to be very short-lived,” says Bob Halfyard, director of safety and compliance for Challenger Motor Freight, headquartered in Cambridge, Ont. “And what you have to know is that, if you try to artificially heighten your energy or alertness with caffeine or sugar, you’re going to get a big bounce for 20 minutes or a half hour and then when you come down, you’re going to come down harder.”

Still, everyone is going to have a cup of coffee from time to time, says Halfyard, who himself admits to having cut down from up to 15 cups of coffee per day to three cups per week.

“The only way to combat fatigue is to rest,” Halfyard says. “You can try to use artificial means, but eventually it will catch up with you, in terms of your health and in terms of your ability to drive.”

Indeed, the increased health- and safety-consciousness of older and more experienced consumers (and truck drivers) has energy drink manufacturers scrambling to create healthier, less caffeinated alternatives.

One such manufacturer, new to the US market and hoping to make inroads in Canada, is a working independent owner/operator himself. Danny White is the proud creator and owner of Big Ol’Trucker Energy Juice, coming soon to a truck stop near you.

White’s drink, developed in collaboration with a chemist he hired with money from his own pocket, is rapidly gaining press in the states. In fact, trucking blogger Allen Smith has even reviewed the drink, touted as a healthy, low-cal, no-caffeine energy drink for health-conscious truckers, on his popular Web site.

“I actually enjoyed it,” wrote Smith, who is not a fan of energy drinks in general, due to the caffeine and sugar content as well as what he calls “other ingredients” (like taurine – also present in red wine) which tend to make him leery.

“A lot of drivers use energy drinks,” says Smith. “The 5-Hour Energy shot seems to be the big one they like, but they like it because you don’t have a crash afterwards – they tell me there’s no after-effects – you don’t come crashing down and feel totally exhausted after they wear off. As for me personally, I think it’s a bad thing and don’t need to be high on anything when driving a rig. For me it’s a safety issue, I don’t want to have any kind of high – whether it’s caffeine or not. I have known some drivers who used them (energy drinks) and I would see them standing there with shaking hands at the truck stops. I had to wonder to myself, are they in need of a fix? I don’t want that guy out there on the road.”

Smith’s concerns mirror White’s.

“More aggressive driving is definitively a possibility,” says White, based in Illinois. “Caffeine speeds you up, you become less patient in traffic and you’re not alert the way you need to be as a driver. You can make erratic lane changes, take unnecessary chances, and it all happens unconscious
ly. Drivers need sustained alertness, not the kind of hyped up sudden alertness you get from caffeine.”

Health concerns were also a major driver behind White’s creation. “Truckers suffer from things like high blood pressure and obesity, so drinks with lots of caffeine and sugar just aren’t good for them. Truckers need a healthy source of energy.”

In response, White and his chemist-for-hire came up with a drink that has only 70 calories per 16-ounce serving, sweetened with stevia (an organic sugar substitute) and chock-full of ingredients as crunchy-granola sounding as hawthorn berry, “recognized for its contribution to the cardiovascular system which may contribute to the enlargement of blood vessels, the lowering of blood pressure and the strengthening of the heart muscle,” according to a brochure endorsement from naturopath Sherin Lee.

Birkenstock-wearers aside, the drink is fast headed towards being a hit with truckers, at least according to White’s marketing man, Mike Carr, a former sports drink shill.

“When I began to look at the branding, it made perfect sense,” says Carr. “There’s nothing like it out there – drivers are eating and drinking so poorly and they need a healthy drink to help them stay awake while driving. That’s how Big Ol’ Trucker Energy Juice was born.”

The nescient company has a Web site flush with trucker video testimonials to prove its popularity, points out Carr. (Never mind the pin-up girls, also stimulating, and also non-caffeinated).

Now if only someone could invent a way to allow drivers to get a good night’s sleep.


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  • I found numerous ways to keep myself alert but going without the proper amount of sleep will get in the way, regardless of what you put in your body.

    There is so much emphasis on sleep and alertness. I’ve found that boredom plays a much bigger part. When you drive every highway and interstate, over and over, until you are dodging the pothole long before you can see it, you suffer from pure boredom. This alone is enough to put your brain to sleep.

    We fight boredom in every possible way, the CB radio being a big part of that.

    If given enough time for a trip, a driver could stop every couple hours and walk – to the rest area restrooms, to the store at the truckstop, around the truck, what ever. Making the blood move makes all the difference in the world.

    I have found that when on a long trip, with no spare time, the fourth hour in the seat is when blood pools in my legs and feet, telling me there’s not enough circulation for my brain.

    It seems to me most ‘experts’ dwell on the wrong thing. Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and the western half of Washington, seem to be the worst states for pure boredom and we tend to push through those states simply to relieve our minds of this painful boredom.

    I don’t think anyone who does not drive for a living, could possibly understand what painful boredom truly is. It is agonizing and for that reason, a driver will push through those areas that tend to instill this boredom. The result is too many hours behind the wheel without a break.

    Instead of dwelling on how much sleep a driver gets, it seems to me the powers that be should be dwelling on the huge subject of ‘painful boredom’.

    The only possible solution to that problem, would be to force the drivers to log a 15 minute stop every 2 hours. Try that, in the face of dispatchers threatening the drivers to keep them moving.