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Introducing Wide Awake

A new approach to increasing alertness, reducing fatigue, and enhancing mental wellbeing in the heavy vehicle industry.
  • Dr Duck 

Children’s musical group ‘the Wiggles’ used to have a lot of trouble with Jeff – aka the purple wiggle – staying awake. Frequently the other Wiggles would have to get help from the audience to ‘WAKE UP JEFF’, who would often be seen to have nodded off behind his keyboard or wherever else the group happened to be. Fortunately, Jeff’s habit of falling asleep didn’t have too many negative consequences – in fact, they even named their 6th album after his trademark lack of alertness! But imagine for a moment if Jeff was a truck driver. Suddenly, rather than a playful trademark, his habit of falling asleep becomes a real danger to himself and others on the road and takes on a very different flavour. There was a reason they never let him drive the big red car!

Driver fatigue has long been a target of research and interest in the heavy vehicle industry. Whilst there are obvious reasons for this (safety, productivity, efficiency etc.) to this point there have not been obvious solutions, and the predominant approach has been on fatigue management. Regulations regarding rest and activity levels, fatigue monitoring systems and other interventions have all been researched and tried, however fatigue is still a large (but not the only) factor in accidents involving heavy vehicles. Wide Awake believes it’s time to do the opposite, and shift gears to focus on enhancing and maintaining alertness. In so doing we are interested in looking at other relevant factors, such as emotional health and work complexity, rather than more of the same tired old approaches to fatigue management. To understand why this is the case, put yourself in the shoes of Joe, a fictional heavy vehicle driver.

Joe works delivering freight across the Eastern states of Australia. He is struggling financially which is worrying him and the stress is also having a negative impact on his relationship with his wife. Joe is butting heads with is supervisor, and his scheduler is new to the role and doesn’t always plot the most efficient routes which can be frustrating. Joe has no say over his schedule at work he is allocated whatever work and routes need to be covered. In addition, his company has made a delivery guarantee promise to all its clients without consulting drivers, and it has been made clear that on-time delivery is the most important company expectation for Joe and the other drivers. This and some other changes have led to increased workplace complexity and Joe finds himself wondering what happened to being able to just focus on the main part of his job – driving!  

During his shift, Joe has a ‘near miss’ when he becomes drowsy and crosses a painted double continuous dividing line and onto the wrong side of the road. Fortunately he recovers, no harm comes to him, and there were no other vehicles near his truck at the time. Upon reporting this, Joe is asked if he kept to his mandatory rest periods and is getting ‘enough sleep’.  Joe says his sleep could be better, and that he rested in line with the rules and is advised to improve his sleep.

It is clear from this example that while adequate rest is clearly a central part of alertness, other factors – some perhaps not as obvious – can affect wakefulness and might have placed Joe at risk for the near miss incident. At best, he was certainly not at his most alert, and at worst he could have fallen asleep behind the wheel with severe consequences for himself or others.

To understand the range of factors involved in fatigue-related driving impairment and how such factors fit together, Wide Awake identifies three main types relevant to fatigue – cognitive health, emotional health, and physical health. Each of these factors is made up a number of specific things that influence it (and sometimes each other) in ways that enhance and maintain wakefulness or reduce it.  

Cognitive health

 is affected by things like task characteristics along with the level of autonomy and control over how tasks are completed. Think about Joe completing a repetitive, familiar, and boring task by himself (as compared to a novel, interesting and stimulating one working with others), and having little control over his schedule and routes.

Emotional health

is influenced by job demands, levels of supervisory support, work relationships and workplace culture. For Joe, his strained relationship with his boss, complex work requirements and a culture of punctuality at all costs exemplify this.

Physical health 

 is influenced by a range of things including vehicle characteristics (think of Joe’s rumbling, hot truck), quality of rest and healthy sleep routines (see Joe’s disturbed sleep and recurrent shift work), financial rewards/incentives and personal circumstances which may create pressure to overwork (as per Joe’s financial troubles leading to overtime work), and physical activity and diet (which he is struggling to stay on top of). It is clear that in Joe’s case many of these factors are at play, each influencing the other to produce reduced alertness and increased fatigue.  

Although Joe is a fictional blog character, the importance of enhancing alertness in the heavy vehicle industry is certainly not. Although the vast majority of fatal crashes in Australia involving heavy vehicles are due to the other vehicle(s), when it comes to non-fatal heavy vehicle crashes, two thirds involve a single vehicle, and the heavy vehicle is at fault in around 60% involving multiple vehicles. Along with factors such as speed, driver error and driver negligence, fatigue is a common factor identified by research into these events.

Some of this research involves asking drivers about their self-perceptions of when they know they are too fatigued to drive. Interestingly, a common response to this query is, when ‘pigs fly’. Although this may sound fanciful, there is research to support this idea with around 80% of cases of extreme fatigue resulting in visual hallucinations. Indeed, there is a long-standing superstition frequently referenced in online driver forums that says when drivers are extremely fatigued, they will receive a visit from ‘the black wolf’, an animal that appears in the middle of the road as a warning. Others report seeing a farmhouse or another animal of sorts – perhaps Dorothy the Dinosaur! As an example, one driver reported slamming on the brakes thinking there was a deer in the middle of the road, only to find out it was a hallucination. This occurred after four 12 hour shifts in a row. It’s clear that fatigue plays tricks on us, and there is a reason sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture. Come to think of it, perhaps waking up Jeff was meaner than the Wiggles made it appear…!

So, what can be done to reduce fatigue and maximise alertness? Wide Awake is a project that aims to answer this question by looking beyond the tired old approaches to fatigue management (yawn!). Give it a rest! Instead, we’re adopting a new and different way of addressing workplace factors and the systems that impact driver fatigue, with a focus on increasing alertness, not just managing fatigue. Drawing on research from the desk and the road, we will:

  • Develop a comprehensive understanding of the impacts of job demands and complexity on the mental health and fatigue of heavy vehicle drivers.
  • Develop and trial methods and tools for removing job demands and complexity that impact heavy vehicle driver’s safety performance.
  • Develop a toolkit for industry that can be used to assess and provide advice for organisations to simplify aspects of the supply chain / operations that impact heavy vehicle driver mental health, fatigue, and safety performance.

Overall, it is clear that the components that contribute to cognitive, emotional, and physical health are important when it comes to wakefulness, and that increased alertness and reduced fatigue are imperative for heavy vehicle safety and driver wellbeing. Although past approaches have looked at fatigue and its management in this industry, Wide Awake represents an opportunity to adopt a new and fresh approach that utilises systems thinking and looking beyond the usual suspects in fatigue management.  

Well, after all that I think I need a rest – is that a purple Wiggle I see in front of me…? WAKE UP JEFF! Oops, maybe I have burned the midnight oil too long in writing this blog – turns out ‘Jeff’ was actually a figment of my imagination after all – at least it wasn’t the black wolf or Dorothy the Dinosaur! On that note I think it’s time to call it a night. To keep up to date with the Wide Awake project please submit your details on the contact page.

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