Truck Drivers Should Grab the Wheel When it Comes to Sleep Management

While the new hours-of-service rules for commercial drivers are "absolutely necessary," they're not enough to fully manage the constant risk of fatigue faced by drivers and other 24-7 workers, according to a sleep expert.

Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., founder, president and chief scientist of Cupertino, Calif.-based Alertness Solutions, a scientific consulting firm that addresses the safety and performance needs of 24-7 operations, says he applauds the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for making the first significant changes to the hours-of-service rules since 1939. The rules -- which were implemented in January 2004 but currently are under review by the agency -- create a work and rest schedule for commercial truck drivers that is more congruent with a person's biological rhythms and with the latest scientific research on sleep and fatigue, Rosekind says.

Nevertheless, the new rules (which, among other things, increased the minimum required off-duty time for drivers from 8 to 10 hours and decreased the maximum duty time from 15 to 14 hours) are not sufficient to manage the problem of fatigue faced by drivers, he adds.

"You can mandate the time off, but you can't control what people do during their time off," Rosekind said.

That's why Rosekind, who for 7 years led the Fatigue Countermeasures Program at NASA Ames Research Center in San Francisco, recommends that commercial drivers and other 24-7 shiftworkers use additional alertness and fatigue management strategies to ensure that they reach their destination safely.

"Everyone has a role in managing fatigue to be safer," Rosekind said. "Drivers have to make sure they get enough sleep, companies have to make sure their schedules are responsible and educate their drivers and government has to make sure whatever regulations they promulgate reflect scientific knowledge. It's a shared responsibility."

Rosekind recommends strategies in four areas.

1. Education -- A person with sleep apnea is six times more likely to be involved in a vehicle crash. Yet, of the estimated 20 million people in the United States with sleep apnea, 90 percent are undiagnosed, according to Rosekind. Alcohol, the most popular sleep aid, actually can erode the quantity and quality of sleep a person gets. Rosekind advises people to learn more about sleep issues such as these, as well learn more about:
  • Sleep requirements
  • The benefits of sleep
  • Sleep debt (sleep, like a bank account, goes into debt when a person falls behind)
  • Circadian rhythms, which are biological functions that occur naturally in a 24-hour cycle.
2. Good sleep habits -- A number of sleeptime practices can create a conducive atmosphere for quality sleep. They include:
  • Maintaining a regular bedtime and waketime
  • Developing pre-bedtime rituals, which can be used as "cues" to relax
  • Avoiding work or worry in the bedroom
  • Keeping the bedroom dark, quiet and cool
  • Avoiding exercise, caffeine and alcohol at least 2 to 3 hours before bed.
3. Naps -- According to a NASA study, pilots who were given 40-minute nap periods registered a 34-percent increase in performance and a 54-percent increase in alertness, even if they didn't use the full 40-minute period to nap. Naps work, particularly naps of 40 minutes or less, Rosekind says. (A Harvard study showed that even 5- to 10-minute naps improved memory and learning.) If a longer nap is necessary, avoid taking it close to bedtime.
4. Caffeine management -- Caffeine is the method of choice for workers trying to stay awake, but, ironically, it also can be instrumental in disrupting sleep. Caffeine, according to Rosekind, takes 15 to 30 minutes to take effect; it generally will keep users awake for 3 to 4 hours. It takes 100 to 200 milligrams of caffeine for users to feel more awake after consuming caffeine. Keeping these figures in mind, "strategic caffeine use" involves managing when caffeine is consumed and being aware of how many milligrams of caffeine are being consumed at a given time. One final thought: Humans are at their least awake and alert from 3 to 6 a.m., so shiftworkers who insist on drinking caffeine might consider consuming caffeine around 2:30 a.m., depending on when they get off work, Rosekind says.
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