How Truck Drivers Can Stay Alert on the Road

Nov. 16, 2021

Drowsy driving is already a problem for the average driver, but truck drivers are at a much higher risk, given all of their hours on the road.

The Harvard School of Medicine (HSM) estimates up to 20 percent of all large truck crashes are caused by drowsy driving, accounting for nearly 9,000 fatalities and up to 220,000 serious injuries. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), up to 100,000 drivers fall asleep behind the wheel, causing as many as 1,500 deaths and 40,000 injuries.

Meanwhile, half of all drivers surveyed by HSM admit to driving while tired, and almost a quarter of drivers admit to “drifting off” on long-haul routes. Lack of sleep is largely to blame, and truck drivers are especially susceptible.

While sleep experts recommend eight hours of sleep for good health, truck drivers average less than five hours each night. The lack of sleep can disrupt circadian rhythm, which commands the body’s sleep-wake schedule.

Truck drivers are also at a much greater risk for sleep disorders than the average U.S. citizen. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, up to 28 percent of truck drivers may have sleep apnea. While this may not specifically cause a person to fall asleep, it does affect performance and the ability to remain alert throughout the day. Eyes have trouble focusing, and reactions to events on the road can be delayed.

All of these factors and more can heighten the risk of an accident behind the wheel, which is why sleep health is so important for drivers.

Why sleep is important

Poor sleep habits can also have a long-term impact on mental health and physical wellness in several ways.

A NIOSH survey found that 69 percent of long-haul drivers are obese, with truckers more likely to have high blood pressure or diabetes. Dr. Stephanie Pratt, the director of the NIOSH Center for Motor Vehicle Safety, explains, “The job of long-haul truck driving involves long hours of sedentary work and limited access to exercise opportunities and nutritious food.”

Sleep deprivation occurs for several reasons. Driving late in the dark can encourage sleep, making it easy for eyelids to flutter. Add to that long distances and multi-hour drives, and it's a perfect recipe for drowsy driving.

There are other factors, as well. Tight quarters and a lack of regular resources, such as healthy food, room to move around, and even a comfortable bed, can all easily hinder sleep and affect a truck driver’s performance. Even proper healthcare can be difficult to obtain on the road.

Poor sleep habits can contribute to several specific health issues:

  • Slower reaction times: Truck drivers may be unable to focus and react as quickly to hazards, potentially creating a deadly situation.
  • Weakened immune system: Poor sleep can make a body more vulnerable to viruses, risking longer recovery times. With Covid still rampant, weakened immunity can be especially worrisome for drivers.
  • Obesity: The sedentary lifestyle of a truck driver has been especially shown to cause obesity in truck drivers.
  • Poor diet: It can be hard to find healthy, nutritious food in every area, so many truck drivers suffer from a poor diet.

The long hours can also take a toll on mental health.

“Professional truck drivers work in stressful conditions that favor unhealthy lifestyles and medical disorders,” an NCBI report reads. “Their overall health, and especially their mental health, is very often worse than the general population as a consequence of long driving shifts, disrupted sleep patterns, chronic fatigue, social isolation, compelling service duties, delivery urgency, job strain, low rewards, and unsystematic medical control.”

How to combat sleep deprivation and fatigue

Grueling schedules and formidable routes are just two reasons why truck drivers are so overworked today, but no matter the reason, it is never worth it to risk the dangers of drowsy driving. If the symptoms of drowsiness begin to strike, immediately pull over and find a way to combat the fatigue.

Although sleep is always the best answer, these are some solutions to help sleep deprivation and fatigue behind the wheel:   

  • Drink coffee: Just a cup of a caffeinated beverage can help give a much-needed boost. However, watch out for too much caffeine because your body could develop a resistance and also crash later in the day, leaving you unable to properly function.
  • Take a power nap: Find somewhere safe to pull over and take a quick power nap. Your body can get a quick recharge when you avoid deep sleep by limiting your nap to just 15-30 minutes.
  • Get some exercise: A quick walk, jog, or even some quick jumping jacks or push-ups are all natural ways to improve sleep. You can get the heart rate up and wake up your body and mind for the road ahead.
  • Watch your hours: Driving late at night, particularly between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. when you are usually sleeping, can leave you especially vulnerable to drowsy driving, so try to stick to daytime and early evening hours whenever possible.
  • Take a break: Your employer must give you a 30-minute break every eight hours, but if you are suffering from sleep deprivation, you likely need breaks more often than that, so try to plan your schedule accordingly.
  • Eat healthy: Even when you are sleep-deprived, a healthy diet can supply your body with natural energy, both in the short term and over time.