If you’re a truck driver — or manage one — don’t think that the Drive Sober Or Get Pulled Over theme you’ll be hearing and reading about over the upcoming Labor Day holiday period doesn’t apply to professionals.
While most of the attention regarding impaired driving focuses on alcohol and drugs, there are other factors — health, medications, stress, lack of sleep. and even diet — that can, in certain circumstances, impair drivers just as much as if they were drunk or high. Indeed, it’s likely that a significantly higher number of conscientious professional drivers operate their big vehicles while impaired even though they would never consider drinking or doing drugs before climbing behind the wheel.
Prescription medicines can have intoxication-like effects on drivers, even when taken according to the prescription directions. So it is critical that drivers understand what medicines their doctors have prescribed for them and how they can impact their ability to drive safely. Some prescribed medicines can have intoxicating-like effects when taken in combination with certain other medicines, when taken without food, or, conversely, with certain kinds of foods. Of course, many over-the-counter medicines can have similar effects either by themselves or in combination with other medicines, non-alcoholic drinks or foods.
Responsible drivers need to always ask questions of their doctors and pharmacists, letting them know that these medicines could be taken while on the job.
Health conditions and eating habits
Responsible drivers also need to be aware of their own health conditions. Sitting for hours in a driver’s seat can cause physical pain that can impair a driver almost as much as being drunk or high. Sore backs and necks, leg cramps, poor posture, shoulder strains, and a number of other physical problems common to professional drivers can impair a driver’s physical skills, reaction times and judgment.
Certain foods and drinks, the failure to eat regularly, a consistently unhealthy diet, or a habit of eating meals at odd and unpredictable hours can all reduce a driver’s ability to do his or her job.
And, increasingly, the trucking industry is becoming aware of another kind of impairment: sleep deprivation caused either by drivers’ failure to get the proper amount of sleep each day or obstructive sleep apnea.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration estimates that 42 percent of accidents are fatigue related, and earlier this year the FMCSA began a process that could result in new regulations requiring the testing of drivers for sleep apnea and specific treatments for that surprisingly common condition. While some industry groups either oppose or are skeptical about such potential rule-making, it’s easy to understand why the government is taking a look. Researchers with the Governors Highway Safety Association estimate that between 10 percent and 20 percent of all large truck and bus crashes involve at least one drowsy driver. Each year in America there are approximately 328,000 drowsy driving crashes. Roughly 6,400 cause one or more deaths.
So if you think being a little sleepy behind the wheel is no big deal for experienced drivers who know all the tricks of the trade — caffeine, loud music, frequent stops and exercise, candy, open windows, talking with a companion or on the phone, etc. — you don’t understand the impact of sleep deprivation on the human brain and body. That impact is very similar to that of drinking alcohol.
Going 24 hours without sleep produces the same loss of mental and physical acuity experienced by someone with a 0.10 percent blood alcohol level. Going 21 hours without sleep is roughly equal to blowing a 0.08 on a breathalyzer, the legal threshold in all states for a DWI charge. Driving without having slept for 18 hours is equal to a 0.05 percent BAC, equivalent to buzzed driving. Very few conscientious, professional drivers would even consider getting behind the wheel if they had been drinking, but many of those very same drivers — because they’ve not yet recognized the danger — think nothing about driving when they’re tired because of lack of sleep or, more likely, lack of quality sleep.
Learn more about how Omnitracs' Sleep Management Program helped one carrier reduce accidents and improve driver retention. Read the report now.
Wise drivers who notice the symptoms of sleep apnea — including daytime dozing, a chronic general feeling of tiredness, irritableness, loud snoring, diminished sexual function, and/or weight gain — should have a sleep study performed even before that potential new federal rule requiring such exams takes effect. Treatments ranging from mouth and nose devices and special pillows to medication and the use of a C-PAP machine can dramatically reduce or end the effects of sleep apnea and the health problems associated with it (drowsy driving, sexual dysfunction, lethargy, weight gain and even heart attack). And, increasingly these days, such treatments are available for use by drivers away from home. In particular, C-PAP machines, which originally were the size of concrete blocks and nearly as heavy, are quite compact and can be operated off DC as well as AC power, making them easy to use in the sleeper compartment. Advances in design also have made wearing their nose or full-face masks while asleep very comfortable and easy to adjust to.
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