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Truckers say tired drivers a public hazard


Related Stories
 •  Asleep in the cockpit
 •  Train engineers plead for action on fatigue
 •  Airline boss decries fatigue claims

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Peter Turner was a grumpy, tired man.

So after driving a truck for 22 years and logging five million kilometres on North America's highways, he sold his 16-metre rig and bought himself a bright red Pontiac Grand Am.

Now he gets paid by the hour delivering food to airplanes at the Ottawa airport.

The Stittsville, Ont., resident said he got out of trucking because of the constant fatigue. The 80-hour weeks were turning him into an angry man and jeopardizing his safety.

"I fell asleep so many times on the road it was ridiculous," Mr. Turner said. "I have to have a guardian angel looking over my shoulder, because I should be dead."

Fatigue is a huge safety hazard plaguing the transportation industry, whether it is pilots asleep in the cockpit or truckers nodding off at the wheel.

Under pressure to travel long distances under monotonous conditions, workers say they are flirting with disaster.

"We are endangering the public. If you're driving over 12 to 13 hours [a day,] you're not at the best ability to do your job," said trucker Bill Wellman, who represents more than 1,800 owner-operators as president of the National Truckers Association.

The Oshawa, Ont.-based trucker said that, like most drivers, he struggles with fatigue and has fallen asleep at the wheel.

Highway accidents don't make headlines the way plane crashes and train derailments do.

But they account for the vast majority of transportation deaths in Canada.

In 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available, just 67 people died in aviation accidents, compared with 2,969 on Canada's roads and highways.

And a growing body of research suggests that fatigue, which can impair driving as much as alcohol, could be a contributing factor in many of these accidents. Studies show that drivers become less alert -- and more dangerous -- the longer they are awake. They become particularly drowsy in the early morning hours, when the body's circadian clock craves sleep.

Dr. Alistair MacLean, a psychology professor at Queen's University, says that sleep deprivation has effects similar to drunkenness.

Using a simulated driving machine in a lab, Dr. MacLean tested people several hours after they woke at dawn. After 18 hours without sleep, people drove as badly as someone with 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. After 21 hours, they drove as if they had 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood -- enough to be legally impaired.

Dr. Maclean said that, like alcohol, fatigue also impairs drivers' abilities to know when they are too tired to drive.

"One of the first things to go is your level of judgment," Dr. MacLean said. "You're trying to reach a decision about how sleepy you are and the actual being sleepy inhibits the accuracy of that judgment."

But unlike drunkenness, which can be measured through blood tests, it is hard to determine when fatigue has caused an accident.

In 1998, there were 360 collisions involving trucks in which people lost their lives in Canada. But police identified fatigue as a factor in only two of the accidents.

Experts say the real number is certainly higher.

Under current rules, long-distance truckers in Canada are allowed to work up to 60 hours in a typical seven-day period. In extreme and unusual circumstances, they can legally work up to 108 hours in a single week.

But as liberal as those limits are, drivers say they aren't always respected. They say the economics of the industry, including rising fuel prices, force them to ratchet up more hours than the law allows.

"They don't care about a log book. They're going to do what they have to do to support their families," Mr. Wellman said.

Brian Orrbine, acting director of road safety programs for the federal government, said the current rules are out of date.

He chairs a committee, made up of representatives from government and industry, that has put forward a controversial proposal for updating the law.

Under the proposed rules, a trucker would be able to drive 84 hours in a typical week, and as many as 106 hours with a special provincial permit.

Mr. Orrbine said that technically, the proposed rules would lengthen the number of hours truckers can spend behind the wheel. But he said that in effect, the rules should cut driving hours instead.

The most significant change is that the proposed rules would require truckers to take 10 hours of rest in each 24-hour period, Mr. Orrbine said, eight of which would need to be consecutive. Those eight-hour breaks would force truckers to take one long sleep, which researchers say is key to fighting fatigue.

But critics say the proposed changes would not prevent truckers from lying about their hours.

Jim Park, a former trucker who is now a writer and editor for two industry magazines, said the only way to deal with the issue is to install black boxes in trucks -- like the ones on trains and airplanes -- to measure the actual number of hours on the road.

David Bradley, chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, said the industry doesn't necessarily oppose such devices. But he said the idea raises privacy issues about how the government could use confidential industry data. And he said it is not clear how the boxes would affect safety.

Fatigue experts say the proposed regulations also fail because they don't make a distinction between daytime and nighttime driving.

Sleep researchers say the human body has an innate natural rhythm, called the circadian clock, which affects when people feel awake and when they feel tired.

Research shows that even if people are used to working night shifts, they often become fatigued in the early morning hours. The quality of sleep obtained during the day is also less restorative than when people sleep at night, studies suggest.

"Nighttime driving is a lot more risky for the individual driver on a per-kilometre basis than is daytime driving," said Dr. Alison Smiley, an expert in fatigue based in Toronto.

Mr. Turner said he did a lot of unsafe night driving over the 22 years he drove a truck. These days, he is careful to stay far away from trucks whenever he goes on the highway -- especially at night.

"Any driver who says they've never fallen asleep -- I'll call them a liar to their face. I'll even pay for the lie detector test," he said.

This is the second in a series examining fatigue in Canada's transportation industry. Read the first storyin the series or the third story in the series.

Related Stories
 •  Asleep in the cockpit
 •  Train engineers plead for action on fatigue
 •  Airline boss decries fatigue claims
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