Think 15 minutes helps? Forget it, tired drivers told

Fatigue management laws forcing 15 minute rests may be doing nothing to help drivers, sleep specialist says

By Brad Gardner | March 16, 2010

Fatigue management laws mandating 15 minute rests may be doing nothing to help truck drivers, according to a leading sleep specialist.

Dr Murray Johns, who established the Epworth Sleep Centre in Melbourne in 1988 and ran it until 2002, has raised concerns about the effectiveness of the fatigue management regime introduced in September 2008.

The laws force truck drivers working 12-hour days to rest 15 minutes after five hours and 15 minutes of work, while a person accredited in basic fatigue management (BFM) needs to stop work after six hours.

The breaks are designed to stop drivers becoming tired, but Johns says this may have the opposite effect.

"By being inactive you become more drowsy…Drowsiness is relieved by sleeping," Johns told the International Heavy Vehicle Symposium.

When asked if the 15-minute rule worked, he responded: "The short answer is you don’t know. The long answer is it probably has no effect at all."

According to Johns, a driver would need to remain active during their 15 minute rest to fight off drowsiness, but it would only be a short-term solution.

"If you walk for half a kilometre you might improve for 10 minutes," he says.

Johns also criticised the wording of fatigue management laws, saying they do not really refer to fatigue.

He says fatigue is a behavioural state and includes problems such as muscle aches and discomfort, whereas drowsiness is the appropriate term because it is the stage between alertness and sleep.

He says rest and inactivity will relieve fatigue, but it will make drowsiness worse.

Symposium delegates were told it was possible to be fatigued without being drowsy, with Johns saying someone who finishes a marathon race will be exhausted but they will not fall asleep.

Johns showed the symposium—which brings together policy makers and industry representatives—a video clip of a drowsy person using a driving simulator

The footage showed the driver swerving his vehicle off the road and hitting objects even when his eyes were open.

Johns says drowsiness impairs someone’s vision to the point where they will see objects but their eyes will not register them.

He says drowsiness is more important than fatigue because it fluctuates rapidly between alertness and sleep with immediate effects.

"Fatigue doesn’t fluctuate rapidly…You can’t stop being fatigued in five seconds," he says.

Johns, who has since set up his own company aimed at reducing driver drowsiness, has previously said it is "misleading" to think fatigue and drowsiness are the same.

Despite being touted as a national reform, fatigue management laws were not introduced across Australia and have been plagued by cross-border inconsistencies.

The NSW Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) last year released a help guide for trucking operators struggling to understand how to enrol in BFM.

Following lobbying from industry groups NatRoad and the Livestock and Bulk Carriers Association, Minister Assisting the Minister for Transport David Borger announced the development of a comprehensive package to increase the industry’s understanding of the laws.

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