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Big Rig Driver Fatigue — Part Two, Tired Truck Drivers

How We Sleep and How Driving Practices Produce Tired Big Rig Drivers

The study of sleep — making a science of it, rather than just attempting to treat it without a more complete understanding — is a relatively new thing, and tired truck drivers and other consequences of poor sleep are becoming better understood. Most serious sleep research, however, and looking methodically and scientifically for ways to improve sleep has occurred just within the last few decades. Understanding the “how’s and why’s” of sleep is fundamental to also understanding how environmental factors like job schedules can improve or worsen the amount and quality of sleep. When those external factors produce dangerous results like tired truck drivers, a fuller understanding of how sleep works can be used by regulators and trucking companies to reduce fatigue and the injuries and deaths that can result from it.

Unfortunately, the regulators, the commercial carriers, and truck drivers in general haven’t found and implemented perfect solutions to fatigue, and injuries and fatalities still occur. When they do happen, personal injury attorneys with an understanding of how sleep functions and how sleep deprivation can occur will be in a better position to ensure proper compensation for the injury victims they represent.

Sleep Stages, Rhythms, and Quality

Researchers with organizations such as the National Sleep Foundation have noted that during different stages of sleep, a person may be either entirely cut off from sensory perception of the outside world or may have their sensory inputs significantly modified — sleep studies in which sleepers (with eyes taped open) were exposed to visual stimulation and sounds found that they simply did not experience the inputs. The nerves from their eyes and ears carried signals from the stimulation, but the sleepers’ brains simply did not process the information — they were effectively blind and deaf to the outside world.

Normal sleep is divided into periods where the eyes are moving — “rapid eye movement” or “REM” sleep — and periods when they are not. When someone first falls asleep, the healthy sleeper will descend through several stages of deeper non-REM sleep. During the early stages of non-REM sleep, a person is gradually cut off from sensory inputs and their mental activity slows. After about an hour of deepening non-REM sleep, most people will transition to REM sleep and then cycle back and forth between the two types of sleep for the remainder of the sleeping time. During REM sleep, the brain becomes much more active — similar to when fully awake — but the body is immobilized. Getting a sufficient quantity of both types of sleep is key to being fully rested and safe behind the wheel.

How Big Rig Operators Work Schedules Can Produce Fatigued Driving

One significant factor in sleep is the circadian rhythm or “circadian clock.” This internal clock “programs” most people to go through periods of increased and decreased physiological and mental activity and energy at different times of the day. For the vast majority of people, having a regular sleep schedule that matches this natural rhythm will be beneficial. Typically, people will have a period reduced physiological and mental activity from about midnight to 6am that is at its lowest level of function from roughly 3am to 5am. They will feel the “sleepiest” and will most easily enter into sleep during these time periods. A second period of lowered function for most people will be from about 3pm to about 5pm — the post-lunch, afternoon “blahs” that many of us experience, and during which many cultures wisely favor having a “siesta.”

Commercial drivers’ work schedules will often require them to work during these low points in their circadian rhythms, so that even if they are otherwise well-rested, the times during which they must be behind the wheel may put them at risk of feeling sleepy or fatigued. Additionally, even if their work schedules allow them adequate time for sleep but require that they sleep outside of the “normal” sleepy times of their circadian clocks, the quality of the drivers’ sleep — and their driving skills — may suffer.

The Danger of Microsleep on Big Rig Truck Drivers

“Microsleep” is the name that sleep researchers have given to the brief periods of time when someone is trying to stay awake while performing a boring activity when their body wants to sleep. This may be to watch the last several minutes of a movie that doesn’t really have our attention, to complete a monotonous work task on a computer, or to drive a vehicle down a long . . ., boring . . ., highway . . ., stretching off . . . into the distance. . . .

. . . After which we snap awake. Sleep scientists have noted that microsleeps can:

  • Occur without even being aware of having them.
  • Can occur with either a blank stare or even with eyes closed.
  • Last for anywhere from several seconds to several minutes.

When microsleeps occur with eyes open, the sleeper is much less likely to register and respond to outside stimuli — like traffic signals, brake lights on other vehicles, road curves and intersections, etc. Microsleeps are more likely to happen during the low points in the circadian rhythm, and they are much more likely to occur when things like truck driver fatigue have interfered with sleep and left the big rig operator with a “sleep debt.”

View this video from a sleep researcher showing how reduced reaction time, poor decision-making, and microsleeps turn tired drivers into dangers to themselves and others:

Big Rig Crash Attorneys in California

Hello, I’m Ed Smith, a Truck Accident Attorney.  Personal injury lawyers who have experience in handling truck and other commercial vehicle accident cases understand that tired truck drivers are a serious danger on our highways and a frequent cause of injuries and fatalities.  Finding evidence that proves a truck driver was driving beyond the limits of safe driving times is one way to prove liability on the part of the driver and the trucking carrier.  If you or a family member has sustained a serious injury due to negligence of a commercial truck driver, please contact us today at (916) 921-6400 or toll-free at (800) 404-5400 for free, friendly advice. You can also reach us through our online contact form.

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