This week’s blow up after the National Transport Commission actually unveiled its position on fatigue management, has opened up the fatigue battleground for more scrutiny. The problem is, will that extra scrutiny get us any closer to a solution?
The whole subject of fatigue management is one which has been in and out of the spotlight for over 30 years, but we are still miles away from getting any agreement. The science on the subject and the practicality of moving freight around, and in and out of, the country, are so diametrically opposed that any solution will be unsatisfactory all round.
For the scientists, the proof is in the research done over many years. The fall off in driver performance over time has been measured and measured and has come up with similar conclusions every time. The fact of the matter is that drivers do get fatigued and do fall asleep at the wheel.
The rate at which fatigue detection systems are being put into truck cabins in recent years is testament to the trucking industry’s understanding that it has a fatigue problem. There is plenty of video footage going around to make the issue clear and incontrovertible.
However, if my long career truck driving career taught me anything, it was that it is possible to manage fatigue in many ways, and that everyone is different. Drivers are as diverse as any other population.
The job of truck driving does weed out those most susceptible to fatigue issues quite quickly. If you can’t manage your own fatigue, you soon look for another job, your body just can’t cope.
Long term drivers do have an acute awareness of fatigue and, generally, know when to pull off the highway and get some recovery sleep in to ensure getting to the destination. You learn by experience. I found myself about to drive the wrong side of the median strip as the road split, when I woke up. I spent the next hour or so sleeping in a parking bay, once my heartbeat returned to normal.
Drivers will tell you they know how to manage fatigue and don’t want to be ruled by the book. This is a recipe for disaster, as has been proved in the past with events like the Grafton truck and bus crash in 1989.
Then we have the issue of the demands and needs of freight customers. Our economy has grown on the back of getting the goods moved from A to B in a timely and incredibly efficient manner. There are whole supply chains which work because the truck drivers run at the limit of what is legally allowed to make it work.
I don’t know if there is any possible solution. If the scientists recommendations come out on top, then supermarket prices and prices generally will go up by a substantial margin. If the authorities relax the fatigue rules, then customer demands and truckie culture will create highways where another major disaster is more likely to happen than at present.
Obviously, there is some middle ground in this battlefield, we just need to keep on looking for it, without provoking the other side of the argument unnecessarily.