Management & Operations

Awake at the Wheel: Preventing Motorcoach Driver Fatigue

Posted on August 1, 2004 by Janna Starcic

While getting enough sleep would appear to be the answer to preventing driver fatigue and its possibly tragic consequences, it is only a part of a solution. Educating drivers, promoting good sleep habits and scheduling practices can be effective tools in fatigue management.

Driver fatigue may have played a role in an early morning crash of a motorcoach that went off the road in Arkansas in October, killing 14 of the 30 passengers onboard, including the driver.

While the cause of the accident is yet to be determined, investigators found that the bus was structurally in poor condition, and that the driver had kept incomplete logbooks. Accidents like these call into question safety regulations for the industry.

Hours of service
The industry could use more scrutiny when it comes to driver fatigue and its consequences, says Joe Burnett, president of Progressive Travel in Spencer, Wis. "Maybe we need some red flags," he says. "For the companies who are operating by the book, and operating safely and smart, they won't care. Bring it on, because [looking into this issue] will help weed out some of the [bad apples]."

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is in the process of writing a new hours-of-service (HOS) rule that may or may not include the bus industry in its changes.

Victor Parra, president of the United Motorcoach Association, says the exceptional safety record of the industry is the reason that federal HOS rules were not changed. But he adds, "There is no question that companies can take steps to ensure driver proficiency and alertness."

American Bus Association President Peter Pantuso agrees. "The hours of service as they existed worked very well for this industry." Driver fatigue is an issue that people need to be aware of, he says. "The whole industry was impacted by [the Arkansas accident]. There's no reason this industry shouldn't continually strive to be the safest," he adds.

On the other side, Ned Einstein, head of Transportation Alternatives, a passenger transportation consultancy, says that a major problem with the current HOS regulations is that they permit dangerous and reckless actions, while other actions that are perfectly safe are prohibited. "As an example, it is legal for drivers to operate nine hours on/nine hours off. But on the third day of this, drivers would be operating the precise hours they would normally be sleeping," says Einstein, who has been called as an expert witness in accident lawsuits.

Asleep at the wheel
While the industry continues its debate, there is no disputing that accidents do happen and driver fatigue has played a role in some of them. Driver fatigue is most evident when examining and managing claims, says Lancer Insurance's Bob Crescenzo, vice president of safety and loss control. "If a driver takes no evasive or corrective action 6 to 7 seconds prior to an accident, then we presume the driver is distracted or possibly asleep. We believe that 26% of our claims fit this description."

Driver fatigue is far more than falling asleep at the wheel. While major accidents such as run-off-road or high-speed rear-end crashes can often be attributed to a driver falling asleep, the near misses or lesser accidents are also indicators of fatigue, Crescenzo says.

Fatigue can result from lack of sleep, a lack of good quality sleep (see sidebar on page 30), or sleep interrupted by medical conditions such as sleep apnea, overuse of caffeine or a poorly designed work schedule.

Science of sleep
Most people in our society are working and living with all kinds of misconceptions about sleep, says Dr. Mark Rosekind, president and founder of Alertness Solutions. "One of the classics is, 'Oh no, I'm fine on only five hours of sleep.'" The average adult requires an average of eight hours of sleep to be fully rested and alert. Another important concept of sleep, according to Rosekind, is how much sleep you're not getting. "It's not how much sleep did you get last night, but anytime you get less sleep than you need, that is going to build into what is called a sleep debt. By the end of a four-day work cycle you could literally be eight to 16 hours in debt. That's significant," he says.

A person who requires eight hours of sleep and only gets six has the same performance equivalent as someone with a .05 blood-alcohol level. People who need eight hours and get only four will perform at the equivalent of having a .10 blood-alcohol level, Rosekind says.

"There is a big discrepancy between people's subjective experience about how alert they are and what their performance is really like," Rosekind says. This is a problem in safety-sensitive situations, such as driving, because people think that they are OK, but their performance could actually be degraded. "They could actually be at risk," he says.

How much sleep a person needs is defined by his alertness and performance during his waking hours. "Can you get up without an alarm clock, or those three cups of coffee? Are you falling asleep by mid-morning?" Rosekind asks.

Managing rest time
Both drivers and management have the responsibility to manage fatigue. "Drivers need to be responsible to manage their time off the job so they come to work rested and prepared to drive safely," Lancer's Crescenzo says.

"We know of accidents that were clearly fatigue-related because the driver abused his ability to get rest," says Carmen Daecher of Daecher Consultants. "It wasn't that they didn't have time to get rest, they just didn't."

"We have a responsibility to ourselves and to our passengers," says Progressive Travel's Burnett. His company training underscores the importance of drivers resting and not working during their time off. "Don't go out and chop five cords of wood and go in and shower and expect to drive tonight, because it's just not going to work," he says. "It's our responsibility as owners of companies or trainers to tell drivers they can't do that."

"We don't allow our full-time drivers to drive for somebody else on their off time," says Rita Kane, director of operations for Orlando Bus Ltd. (OBL) in Orlando, Fla. "I allow it for my seasonal drivers only because they have a lot of time off in between runs."

Educate and communicate
Education for drivers, managers, tour guides/companies and customers is the best way to approach and manage fatigue. "We as an industry need to educate our drivers better," Daecher says.

Before any long trip, drivers should be prepped on what the trip will involve and what the customer's needs are, Burnett says. He also incorporates driver fatigue prevention in his regular training of drivers.

Fatigue management training at Greyhound includes giving drivers information about diet and nutrition, including certain foods that cause lethargy. "We are also educating our drivers on how to recognize symptoms of sleep disorders," says Alex Guariento, senior director of safety and security for Greyhound.

In addition to education, communication plays an important role in fatigue management. "If a driver isn't able to perform his or her duties, then he or she needs to be able to talk to management," says ABA's Pantuso.

"We really listen to our drivers, and they feel comfortable coming to us to let us know if there is a problem," Kane says. "There's no argument. If they're too tired, they're too tired."

If there is a concern, be it fatigue-related, or mechanical, drivers for Progressive Travel have phone numbers for all staff members if needed, says Burnett.

Supervising staff
Just like motorcoaches are given pre-trip inspections, so should drivers. This is precisely what Pete Kane, president of OBL, does before his drivers make any trips. "Every day, every driver that drives for us will have a minimum of two or three sets of eyes on them," he says.

All Greyhound supervisors are trained to recognize impairment, whether it's due to fatigue, or alcohol or substance abuse, Guariento says. "This includes dispatchers on the phone and managers on the ground."

Besides supervising drivers before they get behind the wheel, some operators watch their drivers while they are on the road. "We have supervisors on the road that follow our drivers and give me feedback. They check the buses for speed limit and driving habits," says Rita Kane.

Scheduling and relief
Scheduling is another key component of fatigue management and prevention. "Motorcoach companies have to make sure that trips they book and the drivers they assign are matched for distance, time and sleep preparation," Crescenzo says.

Some driving, like shuttle work may be more fatiguing than others because there is little variety, says Rita Kane. "You are going to the same hotels every day at the same time and going to the same place. We rotate our drivers around, so they are not always on the same routes," she says.

Some operators schedule relief drivers for longer trips as a safety measure, so there is always another person who can take over if the driver gets tired. "We put our sleeper berths for the relief driver in the back of the coach," says Burnett. His coaches feature double-walled, insulated and soundproofed sleeper berths, which have a solid door with locking handle.

Just say no
When it comes to safety, the customer may not always be right. Operators and drivers must be able to say "no" to a customer, if their trip demands exceed what may be safe for the driver. "Operators and managers have to be careful to accept trips that are not high-risk trips for fatigue," Crescenzo says.

"Drivers have to be able to say 'no' to the customer," says Daryl Reid, charter supervisor for Reid's Charter in Creighton, Mo. One of Reid's drivers paid the price with his job after accommodating a customer request that was illegal in terms of HOS rules.

How to get a good night's sleep

Developing good sleep habits is something everybody should work on, says Mark Rosekind, president and founder of Alertness Solutions, a consulting firm that develops strategies for improved safety and productivity using knowledge of sleep, circadian rhythms and performance. "While the amount of sleep is important, the quality of sleep a person gets is just as critical," he says. Below are some suggestions Rosekind says will help promote healthy sleep.

  • Get the maximum amount of sleep appropriate for you.
  • Control your sleep environment. Ideally, a dark, quiet and cool place.
  • Develop a ritual or routine before going to bed that gives your body cues you are getting ready to sleep.
  • Stop all exercise, caffeine- or alcohol-intake two to three hours before going to bed.
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as breathing, yoga and positive imagery.
  • If you cannot fall asleep after 30 minutes, get up and read or practice relaxation techniques until you feel sleepy and try again.
  • Do not make any negative associations with your bed that would prevent sleep, such as balancing your checkbook, talking on the phone, or watching the news.

For more information about Alertness Solutions, visit

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