In June 2014, a fatal accident involving a truck on the New Jersey Turnpike found its way into tabloid headlines. The road accident had killed the noted writer James McNair and seriously injured the comedian Tracey Morgan. The culprit? A drowsy truck driver.
Lack of sleep has been a huge issue for truck drivers and the industry in general for decades. Nearly a third of all fatal road accidents involving trucks are caused by drowsy drivers, according to data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Regulators have taken stringent steps to make sure that dispatchers do not put truckers on the road without allowing a break of at least 10 hours. Yet, falling asleep at the wheel continues to be a major issue for truck drivers.
Consider this experience one trucker had. Dedrick Cunningham had been a trucker for a year or so under a company that pressured him to deliver loads on time. One time he was driving across Colorado in the early morning when he suddenly saw zebras crossing the highway, Cunningham told a Vice reporter. He had been awake for hours and was unable to sleep as needed because he did not want his load to arrive delayed. When he realized he was hallucinating, he tried to pull over and ended up hitting a guardrail.
Cunningham’s experience is not unique among truckers. Many drivers have told stories of falling into “micro sleep” at the wheel after being on the road for hours. Drivers have tried all sorts of tricks to stay awake on the road, such as drinking coffee, getting out and walking around the truck once, and taking No-Doze. Recently, truckers have turned to tech to stay awake. Most drivers use readily available mobile apps that help people stay up without rest. Some use mobile apps that can detect when a person’s eyes are closed, and when that happens, an alarm sound goes off. There are also apps that sound off alarms when the driver’s head suddenly dips forward.
Even trucking fleets have started to use various tech tactics, such as applying automatic brakes if the trucker seems to doze off. There’s a monitoring system that some truck companies use to detect obstacles in front of the road and sound off an alarm so that the driver will apply the brakes on time. There are plenty more apps and other gadgets that help prevent the trucker from getting distracted.
But do such tech innovations help truckers stay awake? There’s little evidence to indicate that. The real problem is what keeps truckers awake. Even with mandatory resting hours, truckers complain of pressure to deliver as a major cause for restless hours. For owner-operators, most need to spend hours off the road arranging loads and calling shippers. Most of these things can bear down negatively on a trucker’s ability to get adequate sleep.
Bill Busbice, one of the developers of HWY Pro, is a proponent of efficiency in the tracking system so that truckers have more hours to sleep. HWY Pro addresses only a small part of the issue—time management—but is presenting a comprehensive solution nonetheless. Truckers, especially owner-operators, who use HWY Pro can plan routes smartly, thus eliminating time waste to deliver loads on time without sacrificing resting time.
In the future, at least until truckers can safely be fully autonomous, apps like HWY Pro will be necessary for truckers to work smartly and responsibly.