Market Update: U.S. Truckers and their families face a sleep epidemic. Here’s why.

American teenagers aren’t getting enough sleep these days, nor are their parents, and that’s especially dangerous when there’s a long-distance trucker involved. Since the iPhone was released onto the market in June 2007, we’ve all been subjected to an increasing amount of light pollution, severely disrupting our sleep. In more recent times, teenagers who already go to bed way too late have been engaging on social media platforms well into the evening, and in the process, stimulating their already-tired brains with light, delaying and shortening their sleep to an average of 4-5 hours per night at best.

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Parents – never wake a sleeping teenager!

Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that in 2007, only 31% of teenagers were getting eight hours or more. By 2019, that number was down to 22%. Combined with smartphones emitting a disproportionate amount of blue light close to the eyes (simulating daylight) and school bus schedules that have it all backward, there’s no wonder there’s a teen sleep deprivation epidemic. 

Most teens build up a sleep debt of around 20 hours by the weekend, so they desperately need that sleep marathon on Saturday and Sunday mornings to recover from the grueling week. But then most parents interpret this behavior as laziness rather than sleep deprivation and wake them so they can participate in the family. And because a sleep debt, if not wiped away each weekend with sufficient sleep, accumulates the next week and the next and so on to the point where anger, frustration, mood swings, sliding grades, and even depression emerge. 

So scheduling teens on the first school bus is the worst possible scenario – how so?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recognizes insufficient sleep in teens as a significant public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students. The AAP recommends that middle and high school start no earlier than 8:30 am. Here’s why that makes sense.

As teenagers enter puberty, they experience a change in their circadian rhythms, and their body clocks shift to a later schedule delaying sleep by around three hours. So a child that typically went to bed at 9 am is now wide awake at midnight as a teenager. One of the circadian rhythms that are impacted involves the release of melatonin, which tells our brain it’s time to sleep. In teenagers, the release of melatonin begins later than it used to and pushes them to sleep longer, which brings in the dreaded 6 am alarm clock for school. Consider a teen who needs ten hours of sleep but can’t fall asleep before midnight yet has to wake up at 6 am for school. In just one night, their sleep debt is 4 hours; by the end of the week, it’s easily up to 20 hours. Allowing teens to sleep in on weekends and starting school later allows more time to sleep, leading to well-rested, happier, healthier, and more emotionally resilient teenagers. And that leads us to the parents.

 Who’s most at risk?

It’s difficult to say who’s most at risk, though; a tired trucker trying to stay awake behind the wheel at 4 am, a sleep-deprived teenager struggling to get out of bed at 6 am for school and then falling asleep in class, or a tired parent trying to cope with work and family demands when their spouse is always on the road. 

Unlike children with fixed school schedules, most long-haul truckers face the added dilemma of irregular start and end times and insufficient sleep when on the road. Besides the obvious need for more sleep, which we can all do with more, different start times each day is arguably one of the most dangerous things a trucker can do. Why? Suppose a driver starts work at a different time each day. In that case, their sleep pattern is different each day, leading to what’s known as “social jet lag.” 

Sleep deprivation is made even worse when the start time occurs earlier each successive day because the brain is not designed to go to sleep earlier each day. Instead, it’s wired to go to bed later each day, which is why it’s easier to fly west and go to bed later than to fly east and try to sleep earlier. The human body clock is around 25.5 hours rather than an exact 24 hours, which is also why you can stay up a little later on weekends without too much effort. This may surprise some, but your biological clock naturally drifts toward a 25.5-hour day unless it is set back each day by sunrise.

Why did it take 68 years for the FMCSA to change hours-of-service regulations?

Back to truckers and backward-rotating schedules. One of the reasons the hours-of-service regulations were changed in 2004 was because the 10 hours on-duty followed by 8 hours off-duty cycle meant that a driver would start a new work day every 18 hours, i.e., a backward rotating 6-hour schedule. A trucker that began work Monday at 6 am could be taking their first 8-hour sleep break at 4 pm that same day, but by the time midnight rolled around, a new 10-hour workday was available, resulting in the following 8-hour sleep break occurring at 10 am the next day. 

You get the picture but trying to sleep at night one day, and during the day the next is disastrous at best. That’s why the FMCSA changed the hours-of-service in 2004 to 11 hours on-duty driving, 3 hours of other activities (loading, unloading, and fueling) followed by a 10-hour rest break. 11 + 3 + 10 = 24 hours or roughly the same as our hard-wired circadian rhythms which are in line with the rousing and setting of the sun. Why did it take so long to change the driving hours regulations? The reason is simple; sleep science is new. After all, the human body clock was only discovered in the late 1980s, and Sleep Medicine was only recently recognized as a specialty of medicine in the late 1990s.

So what’s the best advice for truckers, parents, and teenagers?

Recent studies show well-rested truckers run around 10% more miles per week than average truckers, are 30% less likely to quit, and have far fewer serious accidents, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone in the industry. Getting there is a far more significant challenge as it involves engineering safety into every facet of a trucking operation rather than merely a safety program. Next week we’ll talk more about scheduling strategies and proven ways to improve sleep quality but in the meantime, remember, start work at the same time each day and never wake a sleeping teenager. 

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