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How Worried Should You Be of a Sleepy Trucker Driving Near You?

By Aaron Crowe

The June 7 crash that killed one man and left comic Tracy Morgan severely injured was allegedly caused by a truck driver who had gone without sleep for 24 hours before the crash.

Highway drivers are likely to drive with truckers around them, leaving some drivers to wonder how safe they are and how much sleep the truck driver behind them has had in the last day.

The tractor-trailer that hit a limo van Morgan and others were in was going 20 mph above the posted speed limit near a construction zone on the New Jersey Turnpike, according to a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report cited in the New York Daily News. The NTSB also found that the driver had logged a 13-hour, 32-minute shift, close to the maximum 14 hours permitted for commercial truck drivers in one tour.

The driver is free on bail and is charged with four counts of assault by auto — one for each survivor of the crash.

Why truckers drive fatigued

Truck drivers have sporadic schedules, so getting into a sleep pattern can be difficult. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration mandates a 10-hour break, though it doesn’t have to be 10 hours of sleep.

Drivers can log their break when loading or unloading a shipment, which can take hours.

The American Trucking Associations, the largest national trade association for the trucking industry, didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.

Ways to prevent drivers falling asleep

With buzzers and flashing lights that a fleet manager controls from an office and can be buzzed or flashed at a sleepy driver on the road, Sprint sells fleet tracking devices to commercial fleets that not only alert the driver if they’re displaying symptoms of drowsiness, but inform a remote manager of their driving habits.

The devices plug in to a truck’s steering column, and send information to the fleet’s office about the driver’s speed, and erratic braking and swerving, among other things, says Mohamed Nasser, director of machine to machine product development and marketing for Sprint.

For example, if a driver excessively swerves, that could cause a buzzer to go off in the truck’s cab because it’s a sign of being drowsy, and the driver would hopefully wake up and remain safe.

“That’s all based on a threshold that the fleet manager puts in,” Nasser says.

“You buzz them and you flash them with light, and hopefully they’ll pull over and get some coffee,” he says.

Fleet managers could also be alerted if truck drivers drive for more than allowed by federal law, which can result in a $2,250 fine per offense, Nasser says.

Smart steering wheels, which are common on luxury cars, could also help truck drivers, says Chandler Magann, president of Next Exit Logistics, a freight company. They’re too expensive to put on all vehicles, but Washington State University students have come up with a cheaper solution that monitors a steering wheel’s movements to predict driver fatigue, Magann says.

“I believe this will be the next best solution to prevent truckers from falling asleep at the wheel,” he says.

Get out and exercise

Sitting in an enclosed environment such as a truck cab for most of a day has bad effects on the body, including the build up of carbon dioxide exhaled when the driver breathes, according to Katy and Mark Brown of Sitacise Co., a fitness program. The cramped space with little air flow can cause drivers to get sleepy, sick and to get headaches, they says.

“The feel good hormones that are produced when we move are not produced when the truckers idly sit, so they tend not be be in as good a mood as they should be,” the Browns wrote in an email.

A simple solution is to open a window and let fresh outside air circulate into the cab, or turn on the air conditioner, they say. They also recommend a movement program that drivers can do while in the cab and when stopped outside.

Taking a break from driving to exercise for a few minutes may not help prevent drowsiness as much as pulling over and getting eight hours of sleep, but it has got to beat being shocked awake by a buzzer because you’re swerving.


Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for