Wake Up Call: Pilot project addressing driver fatigue from within

CALGARY — As regulators have spent the last few years breaking down a trucker’s driving ability by the hour, a handful of western minds got together in an effort to get to the core of driver fatigue.

Nearly 10 years in the making, the North American Fatigue Management Program was launched in Alberta at the start of the millennium and has since picked up a few other participants along the way. The program is still in the testing phases, but it is nearing deployment and could revolutionize the way truckers are dispatched. It’s designed to determine when truckers should be driving or whether they need to pull over, based on personal differences. “It’s a way to ensure professional drivers don’t fall asleep at the wheel; basically that’s what hours-of-service is — fatigue management,” says Roger Clarke, executive director of Vehicle Safety and Carrier Services with Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation. Recognizing some people have sleep disorders that are treatable, the program puts an emphasis on individuals by analyzing the solo trucker’s own circadian rhythm, his scheduling, and lifestyle differences.

TIRED AND TRUE: A new fatigue management program
launched in Western Canada could change how hours-of-service
rules are governed in North America.

“You might not be a morning person, while I am; I might have sleep apnea and you don’t,” explained Clarke. “It’s not just one thing and that’s why it’s comprehensive. It recognizes personal differences and that’s what’s important.”

The continental program was hatched in Alberta as a partnership between Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation and the province’s trucking association. It was inspired by a joint study on driver fatigue by Transport Canada and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in 1999. “That study was a review of hours-of-service, because it’s always been about [HOS],” noted Clarke. “It gave us all kinds of ideas about nighttime driving, napping and sleep debt, which needs to be addressed; and that study served as a framework for HOS rules in the U.S. and Canada.”

There was another tidbit in the study recommending an effective fatigue management program. What did that mean? Clarke and Bob Drinnan of the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) did not know either, but were determined to find out. “We had a concept and there are all kinds of research out there regarding napping, circadian rhythm and sleep apnea. We put all the known aspects of fatigue together and built a comprehensive fatigue management program,” Clarke says. “It includes dispatch guidelines, screening for sleep disorders, medical intervention [so a driver won’t lose their job due to treatment], and training.” The Canadian Sleep Institute — a centre on the outskirts of Calgary — helped put the program together and took on a large part of the research. The coalition then recruited four carriers — Mantei’s Transport, Canadian Freightways, Grimshaw Trucking, and bus company Greyhound — “who were willing to stick out their necks for us,” says Clarke.

HOS is not effective at combating fatigue in making
sure drivers don’t fall asleep at the wheel, says Clarke.

Meanwhile, other jurisdictions began to take notice. Quebec’s trucking association and safety board enlisted and the FMCSA also got involved, adding a prominent U.S. carrier to the study. Phase 3 began a year ago and is operating in three different regions: ECL in Alberta, Robert Transport in Quebec, and J.B. Hunt in California. This part is supposed to be completed in September 2008. Following that, stakeholders will attempt to launch a program across North America.

What this means for future hours-of-service rules remains unclear at this point. The Fatigue Management Study has been conducted within current hours of service regulations, so the two can mutually coincide. But Clarke, a 30-year industry veteran and a regulator who has helped shape HOS regulations, is of the opinion that the fatigue monitoring program can supercede the HOS regime. “The potential for a comprehensive fatigue management program is significant to the point that if we were able to successfully deploy it in a carrier, HOS would be irrelevant; it’s not as effective at combating fatigue in terms of making sure drivers don’t fall asleep at the wheel,” explained Clarke. “If it came to pass that regulators thought it was better, we would build a certification process around full implementation.

“I think, theoretically, a driver could point to his company and say we’re on the fatigue management program and that would be okay. But that’s very controversial right now.” As if hours-of-service wasn’t controversial enough.

But who knows, perhaps such a program is exactly what’s needed to bridge longstanding differences of opinion regarding hours of work rules in North America.

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