Portrait of a truck driver. A man on the background of trucks holds documents for loading. Logistics.

How Disrupted Sleep Causes Driving Dangers, and How To Solve It

Men are more likely to be at risk of fatigue-causing illnesses in the early stages of their life. Women do catch up after menopause, but it’s men’s propensity to put on weight earlier which drives the majority of the risk due to sleep apnoea and other comorbidities.

These issues disproportionately affect Western societies where obesity in some countries is upwards of 40% which causes obstructive sleep apnoea and in Asian countries where a smaller lower jaw leads to the same situation.

Weight gain is an issue for those in sedentary jobs who either can’t afford it or find it difficult to access good quality food.

Truck drivers are particularly affected by fatigue-related illnesses. Multiple studies of drivers have found that a neck circumference of more than 43cm leads to an increased risk of sleep apnoea which negatively affects a driver’s ability to get enough quality sleep. 

The effects of sleep deprivation on truck drivers are fairly well documented due to the dangers that falling asleep at the wheel creates when driving a vehicle that weighs more than 40 tonnes.

Fatigue management training is high on the agenda of many trucking companies and, for that matter, companies that use all kinds of vehicles in shift work situations, such as forklifts and materials handling equipment at ports.

A typical process of sleep deprivation for a driver can begin in a number of ways. Firstly, the driver only manages six or fewer hours of quality sleep a night. This two-hour deficit is already enough to create a level of fatigue.

If the driver fails to make that up the next night to compensate for it, perhaps only getting another six hours of sleep, sleep debt is created. This means that two good nights’ sleep is required to catch up, and the driver will suffer symptoms of fatigue.

Why do we have poor sleep?

It’s not always possible to avoid poor quality sleep in the short term. It could happen for any number of reasons:

  • Children (a new baby, a sick child)
  • Medical issues (sleep apnoea, heart disease, nocturia)
  • Noise (noisy neighbors, busy road)
  • Shift work (trying to sleep during the day, or adjusting sleep patterns for a new shift)
  • Temperature (summer heat and humidity)
  • Physical discomfort (sore from exercise, arthritis, old bed)
  • Life challenges or choices (staying up late socializing or watching TV)
  • Insomnia due to anxiety or depression.

Is sleepiness the same as fatigue?

Once the driver has a sleep debt, a number of issues begin to happen in the vehicle, and it depends on whether the driver is sleepy or fatigued as the two are slightly different.

Sleepiness is when you feel sleepy and can easily fall asleep because your body is craving sleep. Fatigue is when you feel tired and drained, but you can’t get to sleep.

For sleepy drivers, the main risk is falling asleep at the wheel. Sleep pressure increases over time – the longer you are awake, the more it builds up – eventually, you start having microsleeps where your brain falls asleep for just a few seconds, followed by you actually falling asleep.

For fatigued drivers, they are more likely to be distracted and react more slowly to developing hazards. They might feel tired but wired. They are more likely to fixate on objects, blink less, and suffer from dry eyes.

Either scenario increases accident risk. Crashes, where drivers have fallen asleep, tend to be at full speed either driving off the road and hitting a roadside object, or crossing into the path of oncoming traffic and having a head-on collision.

What can a driver do?

An awareness of fatigue management techniques can make a huge difference. The main strategies are:

  • Ensure your bedroom is optimized for sleep – dark, not too warm, comfortable bed, quiet
  • Be selfish with your bedtime – keep a regular routine, and try not to let other things get in the way
  • Watch your diet – drink more water and less coffee or alcohol; eat nutritious whole foods with fewer carbohydrates and sugars and more vegetables and whole grains
  • Do exercise to keep weight off, get your blood flowing, and release endorphins
  • See a doctor about any illnesses that might affect your ability to sleep
  • Share the driving
  • Avoid driving during risky time periods where you would usually be asleep
  • A sleep study may be required to diagnose and treat sleep disorders, and the situation may be resolved by a CPAP machine or other intervention.