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Digital tachographs and Optalert: Managing fatigue in road transport

We live in a world where goods and services are expected to be available when and where the customer wants them. While most of the time these expectations are met, they also come at a cost. One of these costs is human fatigue, now recognized as being the main cause of accidents in the transport industry worldwide. Although it cannot always be avoided, fatigue can be better managed, says a new report of the ILO's Sectoral Activities Branch.

Article | 08 November 2005

BRISBANE, Australia (ILO Online) - A truck company in Queensland has pleaded guilty and been fined AUS$165,000 for offences related to driver fatigue, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 5 May.

Company directors and a number of drivers were charged with 306 offences, committed over a six-week period. Drivers were caught spending up to 18 hours a day behind the wheel, falsifying logbooks and failing to take breaks.

An extreme case? According to the ILO report, Australian estimates indicate that fatigue accounts for up to 30 per cent of single-vehicle crashes in rural areas. Australian research also indicates that fatigue is four times more likely to contribute to workplace impairment than alcohol or drugs.

Driver fatigue in the United States accounts for approximately 100,000 heavy vehicle accidents and 1,500 fatalities each year, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Fatigue is a factor in 30 to 40 per cent of trucking accidents which cost the country US$5 billion each year.

The 2001 European Transport Safety Council report identifies fatigue as a significant factor in 20 per cent of commercial road transport crashes. The report also notes that more than 50 per cent of long-haul drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel.

Lack of sleep is one of the primary causes of fatigue. More than 45 per cent of the 238 bus drivers who drive on the Northern Pan American Highway in Peru admitted to having an accident. About 55 per cent slept less than six hours per day, and 80 per cent were in the habit of driving more than five hours without stopping for a break.

"If a sleep debt becomes too large, the brain will eventually go to sleep involuntarily. This is called micro-sleep. It only lasts for a very brief period, but it can be very hazardous if it occurs while driving. For example, if a driver has a micro-sleep for just one second while travelling at a speed of 100 km/h, the vehicle will have gone 28 metres without the driver in control", comments Jon K. Beaulieu, the author of the ILO study.

"The time of day is an important factor in accidents among commercial drivers. Accident figures in the early morning hours between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. are often ten or more times higher than daytime levels", he adds.

According to the study, fatigue related accidents not only concern long-haul freight and coach drivers but also local taxi drivers. Taxi drivers' time-on-the-road is often considerable: 67 per cent drive at least 50 hours per week while time off in long shifts can be as low as three minutes, with an average of 37 minutes.

Addressing fatigue

Some governments have recognized the hazards which fatigue represents and have begun to address the issue.

Most drivers of commercial vehicles are required by law to fill out logbooks about the hours they drive and the breaks they take. The logbooks are used to assess whether the drivers are following the driving hours regulations. Economic necessity and certain terms of remuneration, such as pay per load or unpaid empty return trips, put strong pressure on the driver to make false log entries, or carry multiple books.

This is why the European Union has recently introduced the digital tachograph for easier and better control of drivers' hours by operators and the enforcement authorities. The new device measures and records speed and driving time, combining the functions of a clock and a speedometer. It should be fitted into all vehicles manufactured after 5 August 2006.

The European Commission seeks to improve road safety and working conditions of drivers, whilst guaranteeing a level playing field in terms of competition between road transport companies. The European Union Directive on working time came into effect in 2005. In addition, two Commission proposals to revise the 20-year-old driving time rules and improve enforcement within the Union are close to agreement.

Working time rules in the European Union state that a driver can work up to 60 hours in any one week, but that over a four- month period one should work on average 48 hours per week. In terms of driving time, there are currently daily and fortnightly driving limits of 9 hours and 90 hours respectively. The daily rest period is at least eleven hours, but can be reduced to 9 hours up to three times per week with compensation within the following week. These driving time and rest period rules and minimum enforcement levels will be revised by the new package of measures to be adopted in the spring of 2006.

Since 2004, drivers in the United States may not drive more than 11 hours, following ten hours off-duty. The regulations only apply to property carriers and drivers, while passenger carriers and drivers will continue operating under the existing rules while fatigue issues specific to their industry are assessed.

The study also cites employers' and workers' organizations initiatives to create awareness of fatigue and facilitate healthy rest periods for drivers.

Following a common initiative of employers and workers in an Australian company, its truck drivers have volunteered to participate in the testing of new drowsiness detection technology, which alerts the driver and the depot, when the driver is experiencing drowsiness. The technology, known as Optalert, has been developed over the last decade and comprises a pair of glasses fitted with tiny infrared sensors, which monitor all eye and eyelid movements. When the driver becomes drowsy, these movements become slower and the sensors will transmit the information to a small in-dash processing unit, which sends an audible alert.

The ILO has always attached importance to the issue of hours of work. The Hours of Work and Rest Periods (Road Transport) Convention (No. 153) adopted in 1979 concerns hours of work and rest periods in road transport. According to the Convention, every driver is entitled to a break after four hours continuous driving or after five hours continuous work, while the maximum daily driving time should not exceed nine hours and daily rest periods must never be less than eight consecutive hours. As of August 2005, only eight ILO member States had ratified this instrument.

Note 1 - The issues of fatigue and working time in the road transport sector, by Jon K. Beaulieu, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2005.