It begins with healthy sleep habits.
Dangers of Sleep Deprivation in Truck Drivers
Drowsy driving is already a problem for the average driver, but truck drivers are at a much higher risk, given all of their hours on the road.
The Harvard School of Medicine (HSM) estimates up to 20% of all large truck crashes are caused by drowsy driving, accounting for nearly 9,000 fatalities and up to 220,000 serious injuries. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), up to 100,000 drivers fall asleep behind the wheel, causing as many as 1,500 deaths and 40,000 injuries. Meanwhile, half of all drivers surveyed by HSM admit to driving while tired, and almost a quarter of drivers admit to “drifting off” on long-haul routes. Lack of sleep is largely to blame, and truck drivers are especially susceptible.
While sleep experts recommend eight hours of sleep for good health, truck drivers average less than five hours each night. The lack of sleep can disrupt your circadian rhythm, which commands your body’s sleep-wake schedule.
Truck drivers are also at a much greater risk for sleep disorders than the average U.S. citizen. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, up to 28% of truck drivers may have sleep apnea. While this may not specifically cause you to fall asleep, it does affect your performance and your ability to remain alert throughout the day. You may find that your eyes have trouble focusing, and you can experience delayed reactions to events on the road.
All of these factors and more can heighten your risk of an accident behind the wheel, which is why sleep health is so important for truck drivers today.
Why Sleep Is Important for Driver Health and Safety
Poor sleep habits can also have a long-term impact on your mental health and physical wellness in several ways.
Physical health and wellness
A NIOSH survey found that 69% of long-haul drivers are obese, with truckers more likely to have high blood pressure or diabetes. Dr. Stephanie Pratt, the director of the NIOSH Center for Motor Vehicle Safety, explains, “The job of long-haul truck driving involves long hours of sedentary work and limited access to exercise opportunities and nutritious food.”
Sleep deprivation occurs for several reasons. Driving late in the dark can encourage sleep, making it easy for eyelids to flutter. Add to that long distances and multi-hour drives, and you have a perfect recipe for drowsy driving.
There are other factors, as well. Tight quarters and a lack of regular resources, such as healthy food, room to move around, and even a comfortable bed, can all easily hinder sleep and affect a truck driver’s performance. Even proper healthcare can be difficult to obtain on the road.
Poor sleep habits can contribute to several specific health issues:
- Slower reaction times: Truck drivers may be unable to focus and react as quickly to hazards, potentially creating a deadly situation.
- Weakened immune system: Poor sleep can make your body more vulnerable to viruses, risking longer recovery times. With COVID still rampant, weakened immunity can be especially worrisome for drivers.
- Obesity: The sedentary lifestyle of a truck driver has been especially shown to cause obesity in truck drivers.
- Poor diet: It can be hard to find healthy, nutritious food in every area, so many truck drivers suffer from a poor diet.
Mental health and well-being
Your physical health is not the only thing affected by rigorous trucking routes. The long hours can also take a toll on your mental health.
“Professional truck drivers work in stressful conditions that favor unhealthy lifestyles and medical disorders,” an NCBI report reads. “Their overall health, and especially their mental health, is very often worse than the general population as a consequence of long driving shifts, disrupted sleep patterns, chronic fatigue, social isolation, compelling service duties, delivery urgency, job strain, low rewards, and unsystematic medical control.”
Breakdown of mental health concerns for truck drivers
Truck drivers regularly combat hours of isolation spent away from loved ones. The report details several mental health issues of special concern to truckers.
- 27.9% struggle with loneliness
- 26.9% suffer from some form of depression
- 20.6% experience chronic sleep disturbances
- 14.5% experience symptoms of anxiety
- 13% have other emotional problems
Sleep deprivation can impact your mental health in very specific ways:
- Stress: Sleep is closely linked to your mood, impacting irritability and causing you to become short-tempered.
- Depression: A lack of sleep can create feelings of sadness, anger, and mental exhaustion.
- Anxiety: Chronic insomnia can especially impact anxiety, causing one to become nervous, agitated, and paranoid.
Healthy sleep habits can help create a better mood balance and a healthier state of mind.
How to Combat Sleep Deprivation and Fatigue
Grueling schedules and formidable routes are just two reasons why truck drivers are so overworked today, but no matter the reason, it is never worth it to risk the dangers of drowsy driving. If you begin to feel the symptoms of drowsiness, you should immediately pull over and find a way to combat the fatigue.
Although sleep is always the best answer, these are some solutions to help sleep deprivation and fatigue behind the wheel:
- Drink coffee: Just a cup of a caffeinated beverage can help give a much-needed boost. However, watch out for too much caffeine because your body could develop a resistance and also crash later in the day, leaving you unable to properly function.
- Take a power nap: Find somewhere safe to pull over and take a quick power nap. Your body can get a quick recharge when you avoid deep sleep by limiting your nap to just 15-30 minutes.
- Get some exercise: A quick walk, jog, or even some quick jumping jacks or push-ups are all natural ways to improve sleep. You can get the heart rate up and wake up your body and mind for the road ahead.
- Watch your hours: Driving late at night, particularly between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. when you are usually sleeping, can leave you especially vulnerable to drowsy driving, so try to stick to daytime and early evening hours whenever possible.
- Take a break: Your employer must give you a 30-minute break every eight hours, but if you are suffering from sleep deprivation, you likely need breaks more often than that, so try to plan your schedule accordingly.
- Eat healthy: Even when you are sleep-deprived, a healthy diet can supply your body with natural energy, both in the short term and over time.
How to Achieve Better Sleep in Your Cab
Your cab is your temporary home while out on the road, so it is important to have a space that is also conducive to sleep. It is hard enough to sleep at home, but it can feel downright impossible for some truck drivers who are missing the comforts of their bed.
When it comes time to pull over for the night, these tips help you sleep for a better night.
- Park in a safe location: When away from home, you need to be more cognizant than ever of your surroundings. Finding a safe place to park will help you relax, so sleep can find you easier.
- Block light and noise: Blackout curtains or truck shades can prevent bright light from illuminating the cab at night. It is especially important for night sleepers parked in high-traffic areas with bright lights.
- Keep noise outside: Ambient noise machines, like a white noise app or earplugs, can be an excellent way to fill your cab with the right sounds for sleep.
- Keep things cool: Temperature can easily hamper sleep, so be sure to set the temperature cooler in your cab to allow for better rest.
- Get comfortable: Long hours in one position can wreak havoc on your back, so consider upgrading to one of the best mattresses for back pain. The right mattress with comfortable pillows and blankets can majorly improve sleep quality, even if your sleeper is well-loved or slightly outdated.
Things to avoid before bedtime
There are certain items that you can avoid during the day to help you sleep better at night:
- Stimulants: Items with caffeine, such as coffee, soda, and even cigarettes, have been proven to keep you awake at night and shorten sleep time.
- Certain medications: Some medications may have stimulants that can affect sleep, so try to take prescriptions earlier in the day, if possible.
- Naps too close to bedtime: If you sleep too long or too close to bedtime, you could unwittingly curse yourself with insomnia. Even if you fall asleep, the quality of your sleep will likely be affected.
- Screens with blue light: Blue light from your phone and computer can affect circadian rhythms, keeping you awake at night. Instead, avoid blue light at least two hours before bed, or use blue light-blocking glasses to protect both your eyes and your sleep.
Apps to Help Truckers Combat Driver Fatigue and Sleep Better
Some apps help you fight fatigue and sleep better on the road, such as these popular options.
- Drive Awake: This app uses your phone’s camera to track alertness. If your eyes close, the app sounds an alarm, telling you it is time for a break.
- Stay Awake: Instead of tracking movement, Stay Awake asks you to regularly press a button on your phone. If you do not, an alarm is triggered.
- Anti-Sleep Alarm: This is not an app but an actual device. The ergonomic design fits behind the ear and vibrates if it detects that you are falling asleep.
Apps for better relaxation and sleep
There are also apps to help you rest.
- White Noise: This free app blocks out ambient noise while silencing phone notifications. It can help prevent headaches and even help tinnitus if you have ringing in your ears.
- Calm: As one of the leading apps for sleep health, Calm offers special tools for relaxation with guided meditation.
- Pzizz: Pzizz is uniquely designed to help you fall asleep and stay asleep with upgraded features like a hybrid music system and 3D variable voiceover effects.
COVID has placed an extreme demand on truck drivers today. With the virus driving online commerce to record levels, it has affected businesses and the drivers they depend on to transport their goods to consumers.
National Truck Driver Appreciation Week is the perfect opportunity to stop for a moment and consider your self-care as a truck driver. Demands may be high, and hours even longer, but a few small tips can make all the difference in helping to improve your sleep health.