The risky busi­ness of night driv­ing

Many truck ac­ci­dents oc­cur when the driver should be curled up in the sleeper cab, a study finds

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Working Wheels - JAMES STAN­FORD james.stan­ford@news.com.au

IN­EX­PE­RI­ENCE, driv­ing dur­ing the night and a run­ning with­out ba­sic safety tech­nol­ogy are key con­trib­u­tors to heavy ve­hi­cle crashes.

That is the ver­dict of a Vic­to­rian study that has con­tro­ver­sially ob­served that ob­struc­tive sleep ap­noea did not in­crease the rate of ac­ci­dents within the group it mon­i­tored for the study.

The Monash Univer­sity Ac­ci­dent Re­search Cen­tre re­port (au­thor, Dr Mark Steven­son) was re­cently pub­lished in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Epi­demi­ol­ogy.

It was a large-scale study, with more than 1000 driv­ers sur­veyed for three years in NSW and Western Aus­tralia. The aver­age age of those stud­ied was 44, rang­ing from 21 to 74.

The study group di­vided about 50-50 on whether thay had been in­volved in se­ri­ous crashes. Fa­tal crashes were not in­cluded in the study re­sults.

It may come as no sur­prise that driv­ing at night can lead to crashes. Truck driv­ers know only too well the monotony of driv­ing in the dark at a time the hu­man body wants to rest and the dif­fi­culty of stay­ing alert, es­pe­cially on long straight stretches.

In­deed, the MUARC re­port sug­gests sched­ul­ing changes to avoid mid­night-to-dawn driv­ing, along with more fre­quent rest breaks, could re­duce the risk of heavy ve­hi­cle crashes by a fac­tor of two or three. That would be a re­mark­able im­prove­ment but the in­abil­ity to haul freight at night would put a se­ri­ous strain on the in­dus­try to man­age mov­ing all the freight that re­tail­ers and cus­tomers re­quire.

In­ter­est­ingly, the re­port also found driv­ing for more than three hours con­tin­u­ously be­tween mid­night and dawn could con­trib­ute to per­for­mance er­rors equiv­a­lent to a blood al­co­hol con­cen­tra­tion of 0.08. The study also found caf­feine could help driv­ers avoid crashes, al­though Steven­son says con­sum­ing too much can have the op­po­site ef­fect.

The re­port found that both the use of caf­feinated drinks and the time since the start of a trip (when the driver is fresh) were as­so­ci­ated with “sig­nif­i­cantly lower” risks of crash­ing.

“Driv­ers who used caf­feinated drinks had three times lower odds of crash­ing and driv­ers who were in the early stages of the trip were ap­prox­i­mately half as likely to crash,” the re­port says.

Empty trail­ers pose a sub­stan­tial risk, ac­cord­ing to the study.

It found there was a twofold risk of crash­ing an empty trailer com­pared to a loaded one.

Less ex­pe­ri­enced driv­ers strug­gled the most with un­laden trail­ers, which can skip, bounce and slide more eas­ily, al­though there was still a higher than nor­mal risk of crashes among ex­pe­ri­enced driv­ers.

The MUARC study also found that the ab­sence of anti-lock brakes and cruise con­trol ”was strongly as­so­ci­ated with the prob­a­bil­ity of crash­ing.”

Steven­son says the new find­ings back a raft of stud­ies on anti-lock brakes that have found they dra­mat­i­cally re­duce the risk of crashes. The Aus­tralian govern­ment has re­cently an­nounced anti-lock brakes will be manda­tory for new trail­ers from July, al­though many older trail­ers with­out the tech­nol­ogy will re­main on the roads for some time.

The MUARC study did not “find the pres­ence of ob­jec­tively mea­sured sleep ap­noea to be as­so­ci­ated with crash risk among heavy-ve­hi­cle driv­ers”.

Steven­son says this ap­pears to con­tra­dict other re­ports on the ef­fect of the sleep­ing dis­or­der on driv­ers but adds that most pre­vi­ous stud­ies did not in­volve heavy ve­hi­cle driv­ers.

The MUARC study found there was a high preva­lence of ob­struc­tive sleep ap­noea among its sam­ple (com­pared to the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion) but found there was no link be­tween in­creased crash rates and those driv­ers who were found to have the con­di­tion.

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