Concerned about the number of fatigue-related truck and bus crashes on the nation's highway, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) is calling for new hours-of-service rules for commercial drivers.
Citing studies on fatigue, driving performance and fall-asleep crashes, NSF is urging the Department of Transportation (DOT) to adopt a comprehensive system placing responsible limits on driving within a 24-hour period and mandating on-board monitoring and enforcement by compliance officers.
NSF also suggest highway improvements and sleep disorder screening as well as comprehensive education programs to reduce fall-asleep crashes among commercial drivers.
NSF emphasized off-duty time as one of the most important factors in regulating hours-of-service, and calls for a "12/12" rule.
Specifically, new rules should limit drivers to 12 hours on duty followed by 12 hours off duty, with one period of 9 continuous hours to be used for sleep, according to NSF.
Under current rules, a driver can drive and perform other non-driving duties for up to 15 hours after having had a minimum of 8 hours off duty.
That is not enough time to get proper sleep and eat meals, travel to and from work, and handle family and social obligations, NSF contends.
In addition, those 8 hours can be split into two separate periods if the driver has a sleeper berth.
However, research shows that crash risks increase as the number of hours on duty increase, and that people who sleep in short periods or in environments with excessive noise and light do not obtain adequate sleep.
Sleep research shows that most people need at least 8 hours of sleep to maintain proper alertness.
Yet a government study found that commercial drivers abiding by current hours-of-service rules generally get about 3 hours less sleep per day than what humans need to function optimally, cited NSF.
"Today's hours-of-service rules for commercial drivers have been in place since 1938, when highway conditions were significantly different and when very little was know about our sleep needs and the effects on fatigue and alertness," said Anne McCartt, Ph.D., chairman of NSF's Transportation Committee.
"Given what we know our biological clocks run on a 24-hour cycle, with distinct periods where sleepiness naturally occurs, new regulations must be based on a 24-hour clock, rather than the current system used now."
NSF cautioned that hours-of-service rules alone cannot regulate driver fatigue and alertness.
"Ultimately, responsibility for managing fatigue must be shared by drivers, carriers, shippers, receivers, and the government," said McCartt. "That means establishing scientifically-based rules to set maximum limits on driving time and consistently enforcing them."
DOT has come under increasing fire from Congress and safety advocates for the delay in proposing new rules and for not enforcing current rules.
As a result of the delay, President Clinton signed legislation last year creating the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, tasked with reducing motor carrier crashes.