The importance of sleep in the freight industry

Sleep is a rare commodity in a trucker’s life. Good quality sleep is even rarer, and that’s why the one-size-fits-all prescriptive approach to work and rest leaves so many drivers both mentally and physically exhausted. No two drivers have the same needs for sleep – we’re all wired differently at birth with our own unique body clock that drives our preferred work and rest patterns. 

Overlaying a prescriptive regulatory framework over thousands of different sleep personalities (morning larks, night owls etc.) means many drivers will be operating heavy vehicles beyond their comfort zone and at-risk of major wrecks every single day. They’ll most likely be compliant with hours of service (HoS) but deliriously tired and struggling to stay awake. That’s why sleep needs to be discussed.  

If we start with the premise that a commercial driver can be both 100% compliant with HoS regulations and sound asleep at the wheel at the same time, then we have a starting point for healthy debate about the best way to design safety programs. To suggest otherwise and imply compliance to unsafe regulations equates to safer on road outcomes is misleading at best and fatal at worst.

We implore and even demand drivers be safe, yet fail to equip them with the flexibility or schedule to sleep when they need it. Sleep deprivation can be caused by inconsistent trip start/end times and those impossible 10-hour breaks that occur after sunrise. 

Studies show that the body clock’s sleep/wake cycle is triggered by sunlight. A 10-hour break in the middle of the day will yield, at best, 4 to 4.5-hours of sleep — and poor-quality sleep at that. In contrast, a 10-hour break at night yields closer to 7.5-hours of sleep. 

We should be regulating sleep, not hours worked

It’s a controversial thought but we’re regulating the wrong thing. We should be regulating sleep and not hours worked, since sleep drives human performance far more than skills, experience, and training. 

Far too often we see veteran drivers survive millions of miles without incident only to end their career (and sometimes their lives) with just one major wreck as their aging body clock finally catches up with them. 

By regulating hours worked, we can’t ensure drivers are well-rested for the next shift. Even mandating a 10-hour continuous break is questionable, since most drivers only need 6 to 7.5-hours of sleep per day (including naps) to be fully functional and safe. 

If we focused on sleep quality as well as quantity during off-duty hours, then companies would achieve far safer outcomes than leaving sleep to chance. 

Humans are born nocturnal sleepers. We’ve evolved to wake with the sun and sleep in the dark. Anytime a driver tries to sleep in the day, they can be both sleepy but not fatigued and fatigued but not sleepy. 

It’s a bit like being on an emotional roller-coaster. This is why drivers often say they feel wide awake and ready to start work during the day but can’t because they must wait until the 10-hour break is completed. Bio-compatible scheduling or designing trips around a driver’s preferred sleep pattern holds a lot of promise based on current programs in truckload fleets.  

Balancing sleep with work

In 2006 a consortium of industry experts and truckload carriers applied for an exemption to parts of 49CFR 395. The project was called “Hours of Sleep,” for a very good reason. The focus was on sleep rather than just hours worked. 

Flexibility was at the heart of the exemption request, which called for approved drivers to construct their 11-hour driving time and 10-hour off-duty period however they wanted. This essentially allows them to drive when they’re awake and sleep when they’re tired (just like with paper logs). 

The only exception was that at least six of the 10-hour off-duty period had to be continuous to allow for six hours of sleep, or four complete sleep cycles (more on sleep cycles later). Under this program, a trucker’s workday could look like they:

  1. Drove three hours
  2. Slept 1.5 hours
  3. Drove five hours
  4. Slept six hours
  5. Drove three hours
  6. Stopped for 2.5 hour break 

This itinerary totaled 11 hours of driving and 10 hours of off-duty. However, it’s completed in a way that generates the most productive and safest outcome along with optimal sleep quality.

Achieving better sleep quality

While sleep quantity is a major factor, sleep quality is the ultimate goal, and it comes from the timing of sleep. Human sleep typically occurs in blocks of 90-minutes and includes a range of brainwave activity that restores vital body functions. 

The stages of sleep that include dreaming or REM sleep (rapid eye movement) restore critical functions important to driving, such as cognition, vigilance, task tracking and memory. Other sleep stages help repair muscles, bones, skin, and the immune system. 

These various stages of sleep take about 1.5-hours, or what sleep experts call a sleep cycle. The completion of full cycles generates quality sleep. The timing of sleep, therefore, should be blocks of 1.5-hours. It also explains why 6 hours is better than 7 and 7.5-hours is better than 8 hours. 

This is why you can feel worse after a one hour nap. Your brain is in deep sleep mode at around the one hour mark. When you wake up from this stage, you get “sleep inertia,” or feelings of lethargy, grogginess and disorientation. If you gave yourself an extra 30 minutes or so, then you would have woken up more alert.

Try it! Set your alarm clock for multiples of 1.5-hours instead of a specific time and see how great you feel.

Things drivers and fleet managers can do now

The flexibility of paper logs embedded in HoS regulations and ELD’s would seem the most sensible solution for all drivers. But since 15-years have elapsed since the Hours of Sleep Program was introduced, and four years since ELD’s were mandated, it’s time to reexamine the sleep-work balance.

In the meantime, the best drivers and fleet managers can do is make sure everyone involved is educated on the importance of sleep. This includes:

  • Maximizing night sleep opportunities each week 
  • Minimizing caffeine within six-hours of sleep
  • Making sure drivers get at least six hours of continuous sleep every 24-hours
  • Ensuring drivers start work at the same time everyday 

Standardizing the start time locks in the sleep pattern and ensures drivers get the quality rest they need.

DAT