Sleepless in Singleton

Talking Turkey About Trucking

There is no doubting the fact one of the biggest issues facing the trucking industry is fatigue. Lack of sleep is simply a fact of life for any truckie on the road. At the very least we have all had that sudden realisation, in the early hours of the morning, we were asleep at the wheel.


Any discussion of the topic brings out a series of entrenched positions and, as a result, the debate goes nowhere. The fatigue experts tell us every driver must have so many hours of uninterrupted rest in a 24 hour period and they can wheel out a series of experimental studies which clearly demonstrate the effects of tiredness on driving and decision making.


In the other corner, and I probably count myself in this camp, anyone who has driven a truck for long enough and learnt how to monitor their own body well enough to see the danger signs, thinks the best person to control a driver’s fatigue, is the driver themselves. Sometimes you are good to go all night, sometimes you need six hours before you get going. When fatigue hits, you stop and take a break.


These are at the two extreme ends of the argument. The fatigue experts need to learn a little pragmatism. The truckie has to remember all the other trucks and truckies on the road, who haven’t made it. It’s not good enough to learn about your limits by going past them.


Both sides need to come into the real world. The transport industry is now so complex and systems driven, there is no room for the old, ‘I’ll get there when I can’ attitude, when a driver knew they would not get into trouble for stopping for a rest. Equally, the reality of modern life means the time table is set and an operator will work to the very limit of the rules.


The decision the trucking industry does need to take is, whether it is ready to really take fatigue seriously. In the past we knew no better. Now we do know. We know sleep apnoea is at epidemic proportions in long distance truck driving. Driver health is important to productivity and operators do have a duty to ensure their drivers get a chance to become more healthy.


We can continue to apply band aid after band aid on this issue. Dianne Carroll’s TransHelp Foundation does a great job and has raised awareness generally about driver health. However, this is just one of many under funded initiatives to improve the industry.


In some ways the fatigue experts may be right, we need science to help us get over the issue. At the moment there is no definitive way to test whether a driver is fit for work when they climb into the B-double driver’s seat. Fitness to drive is, therefore, a matter of opinion, not a fact.


Unfortunately, this works both ways. The driver can start a shift after a wild weekend with minimal sleep, but the operator and consignor are not liable under the chain of responsibility, because it can’t be proved they should have known the driver was fatigued.


Recently, the ATA’s Bill McKinley went to talk to the National Transport Commission and compared the trucking industry to the rail industry. He said the current Assessing Fitness to Drive standard used the Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS) to screen for sleep apnoea, which asks patients to fill in a questionnaire about their sleeping habits.


“Research indicates that as many as 40 per cent of long distance truck drivers may suffer from Obstructive Sleep Apnoea,” said Bill. “However, only 12 per cent of these are detected by the Epworth Sleepiness Scale.”


Rail medical standards were expanded in 2012 to include an objective test for sleep apnoea, seven per cent of safety critical workers were diagnosed with Obstructive Sleep Apnoea. Not one of them had not been picked up in previous screening using ESS.


When are we really going to get serious about addressing real fatigue in the trucking industry and when are governments and regulators going to work with us instead of clamping down on us? Countless office workers are monitoring their bodies with wristbands, using science to get their health better. Surely we can find something to help the truckie at the front of a 68 tonne piece of metal bombing down the highway at 100 km/h. This is the 21st Century after all.