Consider the toil of a truck driver – their work can keep them up all night, covering long distances, and often in difficult conditions. Shifts can be punishing.
As a result, trucks can be both a perceived and real danger to other road users. According to federal government figures, 212 people died in crashes involving heavy vehicles in Australia in the year to June 2017. Deaths involving articulated trucks rose 7.3 per cent in the same year.
Fatigue is at the centre of the issue. Now, Monash University’s Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences (in the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences) is a key participant in a new partnership investigating for the first time the links between trucking legislation, work hours, sleep, alertness and driving behaviour.
The study is being led by the Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness Safety and Productivity (Alertness CRC), in collaboration with its government partner, the National Transport Commission (NTC).
NTC Chief Executive Paul Retter says it's a valuable partnership. “Our role is to help improve the productivity, safety and environmental performance of Australia’s road, rail and intermodal transport systems.”
MICCN researcher and Alertness CRC project leader Dr Tracey Sletten says good research into awareness of fatigue (by an individual) is emerging. “It will be very beneficial for the heavy vehicle industry to have reliable technologies that can assist in identifying periods of increased sleepiness to reduce the risk of fatigue-related accidents on our roads.”
As it stands, there are various forms of technology to measure quality of sleep and alertness, including wrist activity monitors and frames of glasses that monitor eye blinks to give an indication of alertness at different times and on different shifts.
The new study will use these and also measure facial features of volunteer drivers, tracking for distraction and sleepiness. Parts of the study will also measure brain activity while driving, and also monitor drivers while they sleep in a sleep lab and at home.
“What the industry needs,” says Dr Sletten, “is scientific validation of alertness monitoring technologies and the impact of current work hours regulation on sleep and alertness, because this information has previously been limited.”
The study – which ultimately could save lives – is three-pronged, over 18 months. The first phase is an assessment of current alertness monitoring technologies against driving impairments, such as sudden braking or drifting out of a lane. This phase is largely aimed at better understanding the technologies available for monitoring alertness during driving.
"What the industry needs is scientific validation of alertness monitoring technologies and the impact of current work hours regulation on sleep and alertness, because this information has previously been limited."
Phase two will look at the length of breaks given to drivers between shifts. “Shift work often involves short breaks between consecutive shifts,” says Dr Sletten. “In the heavy vehicle industry a schedule known as ‘nose-to-tail’ shifts often involves two shifts tacked together quite closely, and we're aiming to assess the impact of this schedule on driver alertness.”
The third phase includes on-road field testing of drivers' off-duty sleep, alertness and driving impairments during multiple types of shifts. This phase hopes to collect data from up to 100 drivers across a range of trucking subsets such as livestock transport and dangerous goods. “For the industry to consider the impact of current regulations on work hours, they need objective science-based data,” says Dr Sletten. “This will be an extensive dataset to identify shift patterns and identify periods of concern so we can pinpoint which aspects of the regulation can be improved.”