39 Ways To Reduce Driver Fatigue

TASA ID: 9075

Driver fatigue is a persistent safety risk, especially for commercial drivers and other fleet drivers who may be driving at night and/or for long distances.  Falling asleep-at-the-wheel (AATW) is the most dangerous fatigue risk.  A 3-4 second highway “microsleep” means a football field of unguided vehicle motion.  AATW crashes usually occur when drivers nod off and then drift off the road where they strike a fixed object or perhaps roll down an embankment.  Such crashes are often severe.  In fact, fatigue involvement in fatal crashes is five times that of minor crashes (FMCSA, 2014; Tefft, 2012).  In addition to human risks, AATW crashes can be high-liability.  Truck driver AATW cases have resulted in multi-million dollar “nuclear verdicts” when 80,000 lb. trucks strike passenger cars one-twentieth of their size.

Below are 39 ways that these crash risks can be reduced.  A bonus is that many of the same practices reducing driver drowsiness also boost overall human health, well-being and performance.  The first 18 are individual behaviors to promote in fatigue education programs.  The remaining 21 are organizational policies and practices which foster those same positive behaviors and outcomes.

Personal Behaviors

Driver fatigue education might emphasize holistic personal wellness in five areas: diet, exercise, sleep, other positive behaviors (like not smoking), and positive relationships.  Sleep hygiene refers to personal behaviors supportive of sound sleep and high alertness.  People should plan their daily lives to be consistent with good hygiene and work to develop strong, positive health habits.   These include (Knipling, 2009; NAFMP, 2013; Knipling, 2015):

  1. Generally, sleep as much as possible.  This includes getting extra sleep on weekends. (Caveat:  a few psychological and medical conditions involve excessive sleep.) 
  2. Wake up naturally.  Set alarms only when essential.
  3. Plan for grogginess (technically, “sleep inertia”) after you wake up.  Avoid driving for 20-40 minutes and, for most people, until after coffee or tea.
  4. Consider taking a short nap daily. The optimal nap time is 20-30 minutes for most people.  Take longer naps only when preparing for shift changes; e.g., day-to-night.
  5. Take breaks from driving.  Breaks with a nap are best.  Caffeine, bright lights, fresh air, social interaction, and exercise can also be helpful. 
  6. Plan for circadian variations in alertness.  Biological circadian rhythms within each of us program the deepest low before daybreak and a smaller dip after lunchtime.  Circadian highs include mornings after 9:00am and afternoons/evenings after about 4:00pm.  Twenty-four hour AATW crash rates mirror circadian patterns.
  7. Keep a regular schedule.  When schedules must change, forward rotation (starting later) is better than backward rotation (starting earlier).
  8. Use dark and light.  Dark promotes sleep while light promotes wakefulness.
  9. Relax before bedtime.  If possible, lower overhead lights an hour or more before trying to sleep.  Avoid computers.
  10. Know your limit: 16 hours awake.  Nature has programmed humans to be awake for about 16 hours each day.  This generally holds true regardless of your activities during the day.  Alertness enters a slippery slope starting at about 16 hours after your last main sleep period.
  11. Self-assess drowsiness based on objective signs.  Subjective self-assessment (i.e., how you feel) is unreliable.  Focus on objective signs like eyelid droop, disjointed or wandering thoughts, microsleeps, head bobbing (loss of muscle tone in neck), weaving in the lane, and “drift & jerk” steering.
  12. Monitor yourself for signs of chronic sleep deprivation.  These include falling asleep very quickly at bedtime, dozing in front of the TV, falling asleep at traffic stops, or falling asleep after a big meal or when bored. 
  13. Use caffeine strategically.  Caffeine does not substitute for sleep but it does help sustain alertness when used prudently.
  14. Avoid alcohol before bedtime.  Alcohol makes you sleepy but disrupts sleep later.
  15. Exercise regularly but not within 2-3 hours of bedtime.
  16. Lose weight if you are overweight.
  17. Try to assess your personal risk.  There are large individual differences in susceptibility to drowsiness which tend to endure over time.  Compare your alertness patterns to those of others.  A history of drowsiness while driving or symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation mean you are also at future risk.
  18. Wear safety belts.  Fatigue crashes often result in high-speed impacts and/or rollovers, crash types where safety belt use is most critical.

Organizational Policies & Practices

Transport companies and other organizations should first do all they can to encourage positive sleep hygiene behaviors by their drivers and other employees.  In some cases (e.g., safety belt use), correct behaviors can be required.  Organizations can also:

  1. Ensure that one or more top managers become fatigue management experts and mentors to drivers and other employees.
  2. Don’t expect this to happen “on the side.”  Make tasking explicit, allocate time and resources, and document everything.  If for no other reason, do it to reduce company liability after a fatigue-related accident.
  3. Make work schedules as regular as possible, while still allowing flexibility and worker choices.
  4. When schedule changes are needed, notify drivers in advance, and rotate schedules forward.
  5. Screen drivers for Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) and other sleep disorders.  An apnea is a stoppage of breathing lasting 10 seconds or more.  In OSA, breathing stops repeatedly during sleep due to closures of the upper airway.  Individuals with OSA are chronically sleep deprived and at sharply elevated risks for AATW (Meuleners et al., 2015).
  6. Facilitate and monitor driver use of OSA treatments, such as Continuous Positive Air Pressure (CPAP) masks worn during sleep.  CPAP is effective but aversive for many users.  Some trucking companies provide CPAP masks for free but require electronic monitoring to ensure regular use.
  7. Carefully consider overall operational schedule strategies.  For example, night driving may be safer than day driving overall due to reduced traffic risks.  But night operations require more active fatigue management.
  8. Empower drivers to stop for naps and other rest when they feel they need it.
  9. Pay drivers when they experience uncontrollable delays.  This will reduce unsafe driving afterwards to make up for lost time. 
  10. Consider the advantages of driver teams over solo drivers for long hauls.  Team drivers experience fewer high-drowsiness incidents, and they are generally safer (Knipling, 2009).
  11. For shorter drives in company vehicles, encourage any employee passengers to stay awake themselves, engage drivers in conversation, and be another pair of eyes.
  12. When evaluating drivers, whether they are prospective or current employees, look for signs of chronic sleepiness or past involvements in fatigue-related incidents.  Involvement in single-vehicle crashes is one indicator of risk.
  13. Focus intensified efforts on known or suspected high-fatigue-risk drivers.  One-half or more of a fleet’s total fatigue crash risk probably resides in 10-20% of its drivers.
  14. Beware of drivers with lengthy commutes.  A one-hour commute effectively adds two hours to each work day and raises the risks of chronic sleep deprivation.  Similarly, beware of drivers who “moonlight” at other jobs.
  15. Regardless of the type of work, early morning driving after an all-night shift is especially dangerous.  Educate and warn your drivers.
  16. Implement both fatigue and total health/wellness education for employees.  Various online and other packaged programs such as the North American Fatigue Management Program (NAFMP) are available.  Maintain careful records and high instructional standards. 
  17. Involve driver spouses and other family members in fatigue/health education.  Health behaviors, both good and bad, “run in families.”  Spouses and kids need to understand how tired a driver is after a week or more on the road.
  18. If applicable, consider government Hours-of-Service (HOS) rules and other legally required fatigue-management practices to be “necessary but not sufficient.”
  19. Recognize the limitations of HOS rules, but still enforce those rules!  Rule compliance does not guarantee alertness, but non-compliance suggests a driver at-risk for fatigue and at-risk generally.
  20. In long-haul trucking fleets especially, adopt vehicle-based safety technologies such as Lane Departure Warning and Forward Collision Warning.  Consider driver alertness monitoring technologies as well.
  21. Publicize company fatigue/health programs and expectations in driver recruiting programs.   This will help attract safety- and health-conscious drivers while also subtly discouraging unhealthy ones.    

Cited References

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).  Large Truck Crash Facts 2012. FMCSA-RRA-14-004. U.S. DOT, 2014.

Knipling, R.R., Safety for the Long Haul; Large Truck Crash Risk, Causation, & Prevention.  American Trucking Associations (ATA).  ISBN 978-0-692-00073-1, 2009a.  Available at www.atabusinesssolutions.com.

Knipling, R.R.  Fatigue in the road transport sector.  Commissioned paper in support of 2015 International Labor Office Conference, International Labor Organization, Geneva Switzerland, Oct. 12-16, 2015.  Available at: http://safetyforthelonghaul.com/content/docs/08%20-%20Paper%20Fatigue%20in%20Transport%20Sector%20Knipling%204%20March%2015.pdf

Meuleners, L., Fraser, M.L.,  Govorko, M. H., and Stevenson, M.R.  Obstructive sleep apnea, health-related factors and long distance heavy vehicle crashes in Western Australia: a case control study.  Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, January 2015

North American Fatigue Management Program (NAFMP).  Implementation manual and instructional modules. Available online at www.nafmp.com; 2013.

Tefft B.C. (2012) Prevalence of motor vehicle crashes involving drowsy drivers, United States, 1999-2008. Accident Analysis & Prevention, Vol. 45, No. 1, 180-186.


This expert is the author of Safety for the Long Haul; Large Truck Crash Risk, Causation, & Prevention, the only comprehensive textbook on large truck safety.  In recognition of the book, he received the International Road Transport Union (IRU) Order of Merit award, the first given to an American scientist.  He is a traffic safety researcher, consultant, trainer, and expert witness based in the Washington, DC area.  More information is at www.safetyforthelonghaul.com.

TASA Article Disclaimer

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA and the author(TASA Id#: 9075). Contact marketing@tasanet.com for any questions.

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