How to safely manage individual driver fatigue continues to be one of the most important challenges for the heavy vehicle industry and governments.
Fatigue is one of the fatal five for a reason, with evidence from state authorities suggesting that around 20-30 per cent of all fatal and severe crashes involves fatigue.
Well-rested drivers are safer drivers and while the only cure for fatigue is sleep, there are several strategies that can help minimise fatigue risks.
Currently, that means limiting driving hours and adhering to set rest breaks, with mandated work and rest hours the accepted practice in the heavy vehicle industry for many years, both here and overseas.
The reality, however, is that every single person is affected by fatigue differently, with things like age, sleeping patterns and even diet contributing to the different impacts.
Therefore, the focus needs to be on a driver’s fitness to drive. At joint NHVR and industry fatigue safety forums held over the last two years, it has been identified that within the current fatigue regime being compliant with the laws can be unsafe, while being non-compliant can be safe.
So, while measuring work and rest hours serves a safety function, it is still largely a proxy measure, in the absence of more accurate tools to manage individual driver fatigue safety risks.
Additionally, there’s no getting around that the current practices are overly prescriptive and making things simpler is a priority for the regulator.
We think that properly leveraging technology is a key factor to better management of fatigue. Better management means less crashes and safer roads for everyone.
That’s why encouraging the uptake of Fatigue and Distraction Detection Technology (FDDT) is a core focus for the NHVR and an area we are pursuing strongly through the review of the Heavy Vehicle National Law.
In an NHVR study of more than 80 operators and drivers who use the technology, there was unanimous support that FDDT has the potential to revolutionise how fatigue is managed.
The obvious benefits of the technology are to alert drivers to the imminent fatigue risk and potentially prevent incidents before they occur.
There are, however, far greater longer-term benefits in providing the ability for operators and drivers to have honest discussions about individual fatigue patterns and adjusting driving schedules when a driver is most fit to be on the road.
Making accessing FDDT easier and lowering the regulatory burden is something we know industry is calling out for. But we must do it without compromising safety.
To get the ball rolling, we’ll soon be starting a pilot involving 12 operators to compare safety outcomes before, during and after the use of FDDT devices.
This pilot will test whether we can make the work and rest rules more flexible to enable drivers to stop and rest when they actually require a break.
Working closely with industry, we’ve developed best practice guidelines for operators and put in place specialist enforcement practices. Participants will trial these devices for a period of 12 months, and we will then compare safety data to the preceding 12 months.
We’re hopeful that through this trial we will see the safety and productivity benefits of FDDT in a real-life operational setting.
Now this is a big shift, and something that has come about through a very strong collaboration with industry.
The Australian heavy vehicle industry has shown an enormous capacity over many years to invent, trial and embrace new technologies, particularly when it leads to greater safety or productivity benefits.
This trial is the next step on this journey, with strong collaboration critical to a simpler, safer fatigue management system.