Sleep: A ‘ticking timebomb’

A STAGGERING 41% of New Zealand’s commercial transport operators experience symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), according to health and safety company Fit for Duty. They believe that due to the nature of the role, the sector, especially male drivers, experience a much higher incidence of OSA than the rest of the population. And if untreated, sleepiness or sleep deprivation, dramatically increases fatiguerelated accidents. President of the New Zealand Trucking Association David Boyce says while it isn’t known what causes symptoms to occur, he likened not taking a proactive approach to managing drivers’ health to a ticking timebomb.

That’s why the Association was contracted to help develop and implement the Safety MAN Road Safety Truck nearly a year ago. In part, the programme was originally designed to help reduce truck-related crashes and rollovers following an increase in incidents along the inland, alternative state highway between Picton and Christchurch after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake closed part of the State Highway 1 route from Kaikoura to Picton in 2016. The newly travelled route wasn’t designed to accommodate such large volumes of traffic, and there was a need to educate drivers about the importance of sharing the road safely.

For the first six months, the mobile classroom targeted all road users of the alternative SH1 route to deliver the Healthy Truck Driver and Share the Road with Big Trucks programmes. The NZ Trucking Association visited communities, transport companies, schools and events – Mr Boyce says the demand for Safety MAN visits was and continues to be endless.

It serves two purposes; to raise awareness and understanding between all road users with tips about how to share the road safely with large vehicles; and to increase awareness about improving truck driver health and wellbeing, from identifying adverse sleeping patterns and mental health to the benefits of healthy diets and regular exercise.

“All these things can have a huge impact on how our drivers perform on the road. If things are being managed properly, you can do 14 hours per day, 80 hours per week well. But if those things aren’t managed, well you can be a ticking timebomb going down the road. And simple things, too, can have an adverse effect, like a wandering mind. A driver who might have had an argument with his partner and then jumps in their truck has a problem that’s an inch big at the beginning of the day and by the end of the shift, it’s become massive because they’ve been stewing on it all day.”

Personal actions aren’t the only tool in a commercial operators’ arsenal to battle fatigue. Technological developments continue to reshape the industry, such as the Guardian system. Using facial tracking technology, it monitors lapses in attention, distraction and microsleep events. An alarm sounds and the seat vibrates instantly to alert the driver. After each incident a seven second video is sent to Seeing Machines’ 24/7 monitoring centre. If further action is required they will contact the driver’s dispatcher within two minutes, so they can intervene.

Across the Tasman, New Zealand’s Australian counterparts recently piloted a “smart steering wheel” that monitors a driver’s heartrate and fatigue, while also predicting the onset of tiredness. Embedded electrocardiography monitors, akin to those in the handlebars of stationary bicycles, are visually communicated to drivers through a Navman, which suggests rest stops in real-time based on the heartrate readings. Whether or not the technology makes its way to New Zealand’s roads is another matter, one which Mr Boyce says is too hard to determine. “We’re like a receiver of the technology, rather than a driver of it.”

Author Dave Boyce