Battling the high costs of driver fatigue

(Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Untreated sleep apnea and generally poor driver health costs companies more that proactive treatments

The numbers are startling: 250,000 U.S. drivers fall asleep at the wheel each day; 83,000 drowsy-driving related crashes occurred between 2005 and 2009, and there is a drowsy-driving related crash every 25 seconds.

Those are just some of the statistics that Andy Leuthe, senior director of marketing for SmartDrive, rattled off during a recent Truckload Carriers Association webinar on fatigued driving, entitled, “Who’s in the Driver’s Seat now?”

Here’s another stat from his presentation: fatigue is the most common cause in 31% of all fatal truck driver crashes.

“When we talk to the employees who regularly look at our videos, who talk to drivers … there’s a pattern of common characteristics they indicate through those discussions,” he said. “Drivers are inattentive, they are not checking their mirrors…they’re distracted and … tend to focus on one thing.”

Among the attributes Leuthe said are common are speeding, wider or slower turns, and focusing on a single task.

To try and understand the problem more thoroughly, SmartDrive, which provides video-based safety systems, analyzed 12 months of video events.

“We looked at drivers who were in a collision in that time and then we looked at drivers who were not in a collision during that time,” Leuthe said.

The company found that in collisions, distractions such as beverages, food, phones were common. But so was yawning or other fatigue-related factors.

The TCA webinar was timely in that FMCSA has recently withdrawn a notice of proposed rulemaking that would have regulated, for the first time, sleep apnea. The rule would have required testing of drivers for sleep apnea, which is a primary cause of fatigue.

One of the causes of sleep apnea is obesity, which is prevalent in the truck driver community. According to Kim Beck, vice president of benefits consulting for insurance provider Cottingham & Butler, 60% of those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) have a BMI of 30 or higher – the typical standard for being obese - and 69% of the truck driver population has a BMI above 30. A full 17% have a BMI over 40, which is considered morbidly obese. In one study, 34% of drivers admitted falling asleep at least once while driving and Beck says that 28% of the truck driver population is afflicted with OSA.

“We think that number is actually much higher because there are a lot of undiagnosed cases of sleep apnea,” she says.

The FMCSA rule was supposed to address that, but instead, now leaves detection and treatment up to individual companies. That can cause some drivers not to seek treatment for fear of losing their job or seeing their insurance costs rise.

But Beck notes that not seeking treatment for OSA actually raises health care costs and will end up costing carriers more in the long run, not just in health costs but potentially lawsuits from a driver that injures another due to OSA-related fatigue.

“If things continue like this we are going to have fewer and fewer drivers on the road because they are going to be unable to pass their physicals,” she says.  “We believe investing in the right technology and [creating] targeted health programs will save time and money.”

Drivers who are in poor health, she adds, leads to more turnover due to accidents/crashes and higher costs for carriers through crash settlements, insurance and medical claims, legal costs, and lost time and productivity.

So what can carriers do? Steven Garrish, senior vice president of safety and regulatory compliance for SleepSafe Drivers, recommends building a management plan.

“Without a rule, it’s kind of the wild west,” Garrish said. “You get drivers who get referred (at doctors discretion). I know a case where a doctor also owned a sleep lab and referred (a lot of drivers) whether it was severe or not.

“It affects so many areas of your business and from a company culture standpoint, fatigue is one that can affect your reputation,” he added. “If someone wakes up with fatigue, they may be cross with a customer, they may forget an appointment. From a driver recruiting standpoint, fatigue can hurt you because there are fewer drivers in the marketplace and you are also losing more drivers. …so one company having problems can ripple through the [marketplace].”

Garrish also noted that drivers in poor health can impact a fleet’s insurance costs.

“The conditions that are not treated will cost a fleet double in terms of health care costs,” he explained. “Someone who is not being treated, all those other problems are going to manifest themselves, and if a driver gets sick on the road, where are they going to go? Most likely it’s the emergency room and that is the most costly to your health care plan.”

Untreated, OSA leads to a 5 times greater crash risk. Those people are also twice as likely to suffer a heart attack or to suffer from hypertension and/or diabetes, and five times more likely to suffer a stroke. They also take 1.9 times more worker’s comp days and are 1.7 times more likely to retire early.

Based on fleets SleepSafe has worked with, Garrish recommends fleets create a culture where safety is not only talked about, but demonstrated through training. Fleets should also follow best practices in hiring and only hire within a maximum hiring radius when possible, and develop a fatigue management program.

“I think it’s real easy to find dollars to fund a program,” he said, noting that money being spent on testing and other resources could better be spent on prevention. “Identifying those dollars and carving them out and putting them towards a program can help.”

Many fleets, he said, believe the money is not available to fund preventative programs. That is generally not true, though.

“What you don’t realize is you are paying for it now, largely under the radar, you are paying for it through your benefits programs,” Garrish noted. “Whether you are big fleet or a small fleet - it’s just the number of people - we’ve found having a good program can save you money.”