Driver falling asleep behind the wheel

The Drowsy Driver Problem

Drooping eyelids. Yawning. Turning up the radio or opening a window to stay awake. Caffeine binging. All indications of a drowsy driver problem.

Every driver fights fatigue at some point, and most make their trips without incident. One approach is to simply change to a more alert driver while others pull into a rest stop and nap. Unfortunately, far too many drivers ignore their fatigue, and the results are often deadly.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

  • One in 25 drivers reported falling asleep while driving.
  • An estimated 6,400 people die every year as a result of drowsy driving.
  • Reaction times, hazard awareness, and sustained attention worsens when drowsy.
  • Driving after going 20+ hours without sleep is like driving with a 0.08% blood-alcohol level, the U.S. legal limit.
  • You are three times more likely to be in a car crash if you’re fatigued.

“The effects of fatigue include slower reaction times, reduced motor skills and decreased coordination as well as an increase in risky behavior, decrease in motivation and an overall reduction in performance.” (Reducing Fatigue Risk)

Most at risk for sleep-related crashes are young men, adults with children, and shift workers. More than a quarter of workers surveyed say they drive drowsy to/from work a few days a month, 12% a few days a week, and 4% almost every day.

Professional Drivers

Professional drivers, like long-haul truck drivers and heavy equipment operators, likely struggle the most with driver fatigue. In fact, according to Trucker to Trucker, drowsiness is a truck driver's number one nemesis.

“More than 90% of long-haul truck accidents are caused by human error - the vast majority confirmed to be fatigue-related.”

Professional drivers also have the added pressure of time constraints from delivery times and the performance expectations of employers. For these reasons, Preventing Truck Driver Fatigue is important to consider and deliberately work to prevent.

Causes & Effect

The most common causes of fatigue involve a combination of individual physiology and choices/habits. Elements included in this are an individual's:

  • Natural circadian rhythm (wake/eat/sleep cycle)
  • Sleep, diet, and exercise choices
  • Work shift
  • Physical and mental exertion
  • Overall workload

The causes of driver fatigue likely come as no surprise to most people, but many aren’t sure how to remedy the problem. Fortunately, a combination of driver habits, lifestyle changes, and comprehensive workplace programs can reduce the accidents caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel.

The Drowsy Driver Solution


A variety of technology can help manage driver fatigue. Those include:

  • Surveys to help determine the extent of fatigue problems, level of worker knowledge, and potential solutions.
  • Software that allows data management and support systems when driver fatigue is indicated.
  • Wearables to track not just the status of drivers but also workers all over the job site to help measure fatigue and collect information to allow for risk management.
  • Detection that includes in-cab monitors with alarms like console-mounted cameras to track eye behavior and head movements.
  • Technology installed in seats to monitor when driver heart rate slows, an indication of a sleepy driver.

These solutions, when utilized together and supported by a culture of fatigue intervention and employee assistance, are what’s formally known as a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS). The International Civil Aviation Organization definition of an FMRS is helpful in understanding how one might work.

“[An FMRS is] a data-driven means of continuously monitoring and managing fatigue-related safety risks, based upon scientific principles and knowledge as well as operational experience, that aims to ensure relevant personnel are performing at adequate levels of alertness.”

As this description of an FMRS indicates, it’s not just the systems a company or organization might put in place that will solve the drowsy driver problem. The key is use of these systems in combination with individual driver approaches.

Driver Habit & Lifestyle

Experts warn that any solution or system a workplace implements only helps during work hours. This is where driver habits and lifestyle come into. Normal driver fatigue, according to researchers, comes from a combination of three areas:

  1. Physical factors like temperature and vibration.
  2. Physiological factors that include poor or inadequate sleep, drugs and alcohol, and irregular eating habits.
  3. Psychological factors like anger, fear, and frustration.

Alleviating driver fatigue caused by these stress factors involves implementing a generally healthy lifestyle as well as establishing habits that aid the goal of less fatigue. Tips for developing these habits and lifestyles include:

  • Eating a well-balanced diet.
  • Establishing a comfortable sleeping environment.
  • Getting regular exercise and reducing excess weight.
  • Integrating time management techniques to reduce overload.
  • Reducing caffeine, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol.

The Complete Picture

Much of what prevents driver fatigue is logical. Get a good night's sleep. Don't travel more than eight to ten hours a day. Take regular breaks. Share the driving if possible. Yet, the problem is much more significant for those who work behind the wheel for a living.

Federal safety rules restrict hours of driving for those who operate trucks for a living. This is certainly one piece of the puzzle in preventing accidents caused by driver fatigue. Technology, along with driver habits and lifestyle, are additional pieces. Employer fatigue management programs are also important. Together, these pieces combine to create the most successful ways to fight driver fatigue and ultimately save lives.

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