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March 10, 2016 11:00 AM, EST
More Research on Truck Driver Fatigue Needed, Panel of National Researchers Advises
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

While there is some evidence that truck driver fatigue can increase crash risk, questions remain about effective ways to minimize that risk, according to a new research report from an expert study panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The panel’s report, requested by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, was intended to gain insights into what researchers know about driver fatigue as well as point to what they don’t know.

The research panel recommended several improvements in data and research methods by FMCSA to support a more comprehensive understanding of the relationships between operator fatigue and highway safety and between fatigue and long-term driver health.

Further study of driver fatigue is critical since from 10% to 20% of the approximately 4,000 fatalities due to truck and bus crashes occur each year involve fatigue, according to the panel of experts in several research fields.

READ THE REPORT: Download here for free

“The FMCSA has several policies and programs to improve highway safety involving large trucks and buses that are based on the current scientific understanding of operator fatigue, its causes, and its consequences,” said the report, which was released on March 10.

One of those policies, hours-of-service regulations for truck and bus drivers, limit the maximum number of hours drivers can work based on the assumption that drivers will have enough time to obtain adequate sleep between shifts and, therefore, will be more alert while driving, the report said.

“However, HOS rules can only limit hours spent working; they cannot require drivers to get adequate sleep and rest while off duty,” according to the 217-page report.

The panel report added that although efforts have been made to assess the percentage of crashes, or fatal crashes, in which fatigue played a key role, “assessment of whether fatigue is a causal factor in a crash is extremely difficult and likely to suffer from substantial error.”

The panel that conducted the study also found that substantial data gaps limit understanding of the factors that affect the health and wellness of CMV drivers.

“Although considerable data are collected on drivers who work for large carriers, much less information is available on those who work for small carriers, especially independent owner-operators,” the report said.

The researchers also studied the promise of using various onboard technologies, but concluded that despite almost three decades of research on technological innovations for detecting driver fatigue in near real time that “operational strategies for their use are still in the early phases of understanding and application.”

“FMCSA should support research aimed at better understanding the factors associated with driver behavior related to fatigue and sleep deficiency, including what motivates drivers’ decisions about whether to continue driving when they feel fatigued,” according to the study.

The panel also pointed to FMCSA challenges in diagnosing drivers who either have or are prime candidates for obstructive sleep apnea, a clear threat to highway safety as well as long-term driver health.

“The absence of specific guidance to certified medical examiners on assessing CMV drivers for OSA presents challenges for employers who rely on the medical examiner to make determinations but who find that inconsistent criteria are used,” the study said.

“FMCSA issued a bulletin to medical examiners and training associations on Jan. 20, 2015, stating that examiners should use current best practice in determining which drivers should have objective testing and offering some considerations for addressing OSA, but noting that FMCSA has no specific standards,” the report added.