Far Too Much Is Made of Fatigue’s Role in Truck Crashes, Forum Speakers Say

By Timothy Cama, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the May 16 print edition of Transport Topics.

WASHINGTON — Government and industry should shift their driver-safety focus away from regulation and toward more supportive measures, speakers at a National Transportation Safety Board forum said last week.

The presentations were part of the NTSB Truck & Bus Safety Forum’s session here on driver safety, which invited experts to share their knowledge on the last decade of truck and bus safety, current issues and the coming years.

Most of the speakers said that there is too much emphasis on hours-of-service regulation and fatigue, but too little on training and driver behavior.

“The strongest driver and carrier safety motivators are internal and beyond compliance,” Ron Knipling, a traffic safety consultant, said at the May 11 session.

Knipling said he aimed to correct what he sees as popular errors in conceptions about driver safety. Among those errors were focuses on driver fatigue as a cause of crashes, and hours of service as a measure to prevent crashes.

“Driver fatigue has been exaggerated as a cause of truck and bus crashes,” he said. The “critical reason” for about 7% of truck and bus crashes is driver fatigue, much lower than the 30% to 40% Knipling said has been widely estimated. Only 1.4% of truck-involved crashes are caused by driver fatigue, said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

Knipling also backed a focus on driver behavior as opposed to performance to predict crash risk. Driver personality and risk perception are among the behavioral characteristics that indicate risk, he said.

Knipling served on the driver safety panel along with Spencer; Stephanie Pratt, a research with the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health; and Stephen Evans, a member of the American Bus Association’s Bus Industry Safety Council.

Spencer emphasized the importance of driver training.

“When it comes to commercial vehicle accidents and commercial vehicle crashes, the training experience of the drivers is certainly key to minimizing those kind of events,” Spencer said.

To improve safety, “comprehensive training that really follows through would obviously be a start,” he added.

But he also urged policies that reward more experienced drivers through enforcement and less monitoring.

“How many times do you need to check good, safe operators?” he asked. “At some point it gets down to a smarter allocation of resources.”

Spencer also blamed the problems surrounding driver safety on the scheduling restraints drivers have.

“Drivers basically have minimal control over their schedules,” he said. “They work around everyone else’s.”

Evans agreed that time is an important factor.

“I think that our operators throughout transportation in all modes are imbued that feeling of needing to be on schedule all the time,” Evans said.

“They feel that they have this need to stay on schedule and will often push,” he said. “I think that’s where we get the following too close, the speeding, the cutting corners and what have you.”

Knipling also argued that enforcing hours-of-service rules does not change driver behavior.

“It doesn’t change the person,” Knipling said.

“The real question is whether compliance with hours of service reduces fatigue,” he said. “I’d say that in and of itself, it doesn’t.”

“That in itself I don’t think would change alertness.”

Knipling noted that he has found a correlation between drivers who do not follow regulations and those who are involved in crashes, but that it only spoke to a driver’s personality.

“Personality, aggressive risk-taking, unconscientious sensation seeking,” are the top indicators of crash risk, he said.