Brad Pistotnik Law
Abogado El Toro

Fatigue as a factor in Auto and Truck Accidents

Causes of fatigue


  • Getting less rest than required. If a driver does not take the appropriate time off between drivers and rest, it will lead to and create fatigue and exhaustion.
  • Lack of sleep over an extended period of days. By continuing to have only a minimal period of sleep over several days in a row, the exhaustion and fatigue grow exponentially. A driver has a legal obligation to rest and sleep under the FMCSR hours of service regulations. Breaks are needed so that the driver is able to regain an ability to be fresh and rested. When drivers work 100 hours a week or more to meet the deadlines imposed by the carrier for timely delivery, the driver becomes more and more sleep deprived, finally reaching a dangerous level of exhaustion that is likely worse than driving while intoxicated. Certainly, driving while intoxicated is illegal and not permissible. Driving while exhausted is similar to driving while intoxicated and should be made illegal. The present FMCSR standards on extended driving hours must be changed to shorter work days for all drivers.

Work Factors Causing Accidents

  • Long driving hours will fatigue a driver and make it dangerous for the driver to continue on the road safely. Long work hours, particularly over more than one day, can cause much more profound exhaustion.
  • Night time driving is simply dangerous. Driving during the night places an even greater stress on the driver’s ability to stay alert and react to or perceive impending hazards and perils. The human body needs sleep and the circadian rhythm studies make that an even greater requirement. Drivers should not be dispatched at night unless they are fully rested.
  • Unusual early dispatch times. When motor carriers require a driver to be dispatched late at night or in the early morning hours before sunrise, just to get a load on time, they are making it near impossible to have a rested driver. These unusual dispatch times can be avoided altogether by simply having start times that make sense.
  • Rapid booking and scheduling for on time deliveries are hazardous. Trucking companies and freight shippers promise rapid delivery overnight without regard to safety. They have 24 hour dispatch services that are picking loads up from all over the country without regard to how many hours a driver has left. This type of booking, while efficient for profit, is a leading cause of accidents. The government regulators should require mandatory use of on-board time calculation on hours of service regulations through a combination of satellite tracking and on-board computer documentation of the hours of each driver. This information can be uploaded by satellite to the dispatcher who would immediate see that the particular truck and driver do not have enough remaining hours to make the delivery safely. In this event, another driver with rest and available hours can pick the load up. The potential for an accident would be lessened.
  • Insufficient time to recover from fatigue. Drivers can and should be given sufficient downtime to recover from exhaustion and fatigue. A driver can be required to stop, sleep in the sleeper or a nearby motel until he or she is refreshed.
  • Off duty time means physical work. The FMCSR require the drivers to actually report off duty time in the calculation of hours. The problem arises from drivers who are busy doing non-driving work like loading and unloading pallets, filling and emptying oil, gas and chemicals. Many drivers choose to work and say they are off duty in order to make their time schedules. Motor carriers can train the drivers to calculate working time as on duty to follow the safety regulations. The driver has to learn that all work activity counts against available and remaining driving time.
  • Poor driving conditions. The FMCSR has a section on hazardous road conditions. The regulation requires the driver to reduce speed in poor driving conditions and, if bad enough, to cease and shut down operation until the driver can safely operate the rig. Some of the conditions are rain, ice, black ice, mist, wet roads, high winds, storms, and other environmental factors that make driving a huge tractor-trailer extremely dangerous.
  • Hot climate and head conditions. Trucks operate differently in cold and hot conditions due to the obvious weather conditions that come with them. Truck drivers must always be prepared for a rapid change in their ability to decrease the speed of the truck. The tractor may have a change in the manner in which it operates differently in cold or hot conditions. Motor carriers should always train the drivers on these variables in order to teach them how to safely avoid accidents.

Time of Day Factors

  • Working time versus sleep time. Fatigue and circadian rhythm studies establish that there are better times to work and sleep. Disturbing these naturally occurring rhythms is not helpful to truck drivers. Usually, the body becomes accustomed to a certain time to be up and another to be asleep. Your body has a defined time of day when your body requires rest and sleep. Much of this is from the timing of the sun and moon. Your body will work on a 24 hour clock. When the sun goes down your body will respond appropriately by letting your internal clock begin to prepare for rest and sleep. Likewise, after a normal pattern of sleep, when the sun rises, your body has a natural need to wake up. At the point when the sun goes down, your body responds by planning for slumber. When 12 noon arrives, your body will normally be altered to another state with hormones. In some societies this is called the siesta time frame. In other words, if a driver has been driving for a prolonged period of time, then a short off duty period of rest in the early afternoon will help keep the driver alert. Some people are able to take short naps, while other persons are unable to take the time to rest. After 12 pm, your 'body clock' may change your body temperature, your ability to be alert, or make other changes that affect overall alertness. Drivers must be trained to recognize these timeframes in order to make appropriate rest stops for continued safe driving.
  • Driver awareness of circadian rhythms. Simply stated, the driver should become aware of his or her own sleep patterns and need for rest. A nap in the daytime may be insufficient to keep the driver awake and alert on the dangerous highway. Regardless, it is best to rest for a fixed period whenever tired. In the event of extreme fatigue, the driver should use discretion and stop driving until it is safe to return to rested driving.

Physical Factors

  • Medical conditions. Drivers are required to have annual medical exams to determine fitness for driving because of the strain that extended driving has on the body. When a driver has poor medical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, or other medical disease and/or symptoms it is very important to take appropriately prescribed medications. Some conditions like epilepsy and diabetes (if uncontrolled) may lead to exhaustion and fatigue or other medical events. Thus, it is extremely important that the driver have regular medical clearance and checkups.
  • Emotional issues. Anxiety can influence a driver in many different manners. If the driver is medicated on anxiety medications like Xanax and Valium, it may have a deleterious effect on the driver’s ability to drive safely. When driver’s suffer from depression and are prescribed anti-depressants, these medications can make the driver sleepy. Alertness is decreased. The driver’s perception and reaction time are reduced. Whenever perception and reaction time are reduced the driver is a danger on the roads.
  • Sleep issues from sleep apnea. Some individuals experience the ill effects of improper rest and sleep due to a disorder called sleep apnea. A person diagnosed with this disorder may attempt to sleep, but during the night, a full level of in rem sleep never occurs due to breathing difficulty. This person wakes up fatigued, without appropriate rest and recovery. A physician can help diagnose if you have sleep apnea through a sleep study. In the event that this condition is confirmed the individual can be fitted for a CPAP machine which helps get a restful sleep. Mouth guards are sometimes used in order to help the throat stay open with an appropriate space for breathing air and oxygenating the body. Truck drivers with this condition who go untreated are a hazard on the highways. Motor carriers should routinely check their drivers to see if they have this disorder so that appropriate medical treatment is in place for the driver such that their fleet of drivers can operate safely without fatigue.


Bradley A. Pistotnik © 2015