Watch Out For Dangerously Sleep-Deprived Commercial Drivers

By Ben DiMaggio, a researcher for the sleep science and health organization

Large commercial vehicles can be well over 25 feet long and weigh up to 80,000 pounds. With a length and weight like that it’s no wonder accidents that involve these vehicles are so deadly. Sleep deprivation changes how the brain works while the nature of the trucking industry puts many drivers on the road when their judgment and reaction times may be impaired. Armed with the knowledge of how to prevent drowsy driving, drivers can keep themselves and other drivers safe.  

The Sleep-Deprived Driver

Sleep-deprived drivers, whether they are driving a compact car or a commercial vehicle, pose a serious threat on the road. The difference is when the driver of a commercial vehicle falls asleep behind the wheel the resulting accident can cause far more damage than a compact car.

Adults need a full seven to eight hours of sleep every night. When they don’t get a full night’s rest, the body begins to function in different ways. Most importantly, with sleep deprivation, the brain cannot function at full speed. Synapses in the brain fire more slowly when the body is tired, which means a change in decision-making and problem-solving abilities. That slowed functioning also affects reaction times. The brain simply cannot keep up with the split-second decisions needed for safe driving.

These effects are most notable when drivers:

·  drift out of their lane.

·  miss exits or turns.

·  lose track of time, forgetting the last few miles traveled.

Commercial drivers have these same symptoms, but the consequences of their drowsy driving are compounded by the size of their vehicles.

Drivers Push the Limits

The trucking industry is built upon moving as many goods as possible in the shortest amount of time. That doesn’t leave much time for sleep. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found that 13 percent of accidents involving commercial vehicles were related to fatigued driving.

The requirements of the job make it easy to see why. Work weeks for commercial drivers are capped at 70 hours, but even that makes for an exhausting week. Drivers are encouraged to stay off the road between 1 am and 6 am when the body is naturally preconditioned to sleep, but many companies and drivers push past these limits to meet deadlines and increase profits.

The Struggle to Sleep

Commercial drivers face many challenges to getting adequate rest. The odd hours and long days they work often go against the body’s natural circadian rhythms. However, safe driving always starts with a good night’s rest. Even though drivers may not be able to keep a regular sleep schedule, they can:

·  Create the Right Conditions: The bedroom should be devoted to sleep. A comfortable mattress that provides the right amount of support makes a good place to start. Keep the room dark and quiet with a temperature of 60-68 degrees.

·  Avoid Stimulants Too Close to Bedtime: The caffeine found in energy drinks, coffee, and soda may be useful to keep drivers awake on the road, but once it’s time for bed, it can prevent them from getting the rest they need. Stimulants of any kind should be avoided at least four hours before bedtime.

·  Sleep During Breaks: Drivers may be tempted to push through when they’re on a tight deadline, but breaks are necessary and can be used to rejuvenate the body. A 15-30 minute nap can help counteract some of the effects of sleep deprivation.

Accidents may be avoided if drivers are vigilant about their fatigue and take appropriate steps.


Ben DiMaggio is a researcher for the sleep science and health organization Ben specializes in investigating how sleep, and sleep deprivation, affect public health and safety. Ben lives in Portland, Oregon. His worst sleep habit is checking his email right before bed.