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Caffeine reduces accident risk in truck drivers

Driver fatigue is a major cause of truck crashes among drivers of commercial tractor trailers, semis and big rigs. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations mandate that truck drivers can drive only 11 hours out of a 14 hour work day, followed by a 10 hour rest break. There are also restrictions on weekly totals. Handling injury and death cases arising from truck accidents in Georgia, I often seen cases where drivers were too fatigued to drive safely.

But most of us have personal experience to know that a driver can be dangerously sleepy in far less than 11 hours of driving.

Australian researchers have confirmed what we intuitively know. Caffeine can help maintain driver alertness. But caffeine alone is not enough, and naps can help too. In “Use of caffeinated substances and risk of crashes in long distance drivers of commercial vehicles: case-control study,” published at BMJ 2013; 346 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f1140 ( 19 March 2013), Lisa N Sharwood and her collaborators reported on their study.

Their bottom line:

– Caffeine helps, but that alone is not enough.

– Breaks help, whether used for naps, exercise or drinking coffee.

All this seems like common sense, but it bears repeating. One problem in the trucking industry is that trucking companies and shippers sometimes insist on driving the maximum hours allowed (or longer), so that no credit is given for drivers who take breaks to help maintain alertness within those hours.

However, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations include not just the hours of service rules but also a more general restriction against operating a commercial vehicle when too fatigued or ill to safely do so.

Ken Shigley is former president of the State Bar of Georgia, which includes all lawyers licensed to practice in Georgia. His practice is focused on representation of individuals and families in serious injury and death cases arising from truck and bus crashes in Georgia.