• Fatigue and stress impairment on bus and coach drivers

Dr Paul Jackson, Head of Impairment Research at TRL, shares his expertise on the effects of fatigue with the Bus and Coach Buyer.

While you read this, take note how tired you feel. Have you just completed a several hour coach trip or driven a school run? Tiredness and stress are seen as major factors affecting people’s lives, especially bus and coach drivers. Although the effects of fatigue in the work environment have been extensively researched, its effect on coach and bus drivers specifically has not been so well looked into. However, it is an area that Paul and TRL are interested in.

Workload may increase drivers’ stress and fatigue levels, particularly those driving in urban areas, with a potential impact on safety. The urban PCV driver is exposed to a whole range of stresses, most of which are outside of their control. Many are driving at times of day when it is not normal for us to be awake, which may impact on sleep patterns.

Losing sleep

Drivers’ hours rules do not work in drivers’ favour when it comes to getting enough sleep. Having a rest period of 8.5 hours is not enough, considering a driver may drive home, then wash, eat and socialise with the family before actually getting any rest after their shift. This is really a significant problem that’s under recognised. Limiting time off to 8.5 hours will mean they will only get around six hours of sleep at best. To improve in this area a change to drivers’ hours needs to be part of it. We need to focus on what humans need to be fit for their activities and build from there.

Driver stress levels can depend on shift pattern, including the number of hours worked, as well as the environment they work in. For bus and coach drivers, one of the major stresses is their interactions with the public. In a busy urban area, the general public can sometimes not see buses and coaches as something to be avoided on the streets. With all of the factors drivers have to deal with, unless they are managed well they can contribute to poor mental health.

So what is fatigue? What is the difference between feeling a little tired because you are nearing the end of a shift and being in danger of falling asleep behind the wheel?

First, we have to distinguish between acute and cumulative fatigue and stress. For example, acute fatigue could occur when a driver stays up late one night, watching the football and only has five hours of sleep. It ends up being a long day at work the next day and they feel a bit tired, particularly in the middle of the afternoon when we experience a natural dip in alertness. This is fatigue we all feel on a regular basis, but that’s not to say it won’t have an impact. But cumulative fatigue typically results from many days or even weeks of bad sleep. With bus and coach drivers, there are also issues like carrying extra weight that can make matters worse. They may not have the best diet or exercise, so we have a combination of things in addition to not getting an adequate amount of sleep and being able to sleep at the right time of day. It is a combination of lifestyle and health issues. Also, sleep disorders are more common among older males, matching with the coach driver demographic.

The key to reducing fatigue and stress amongst drivers is through better management awareness and understanding of the issue. In the past, there has been an overemphasis on drivers taking responsibility for their own condition. But there needs to be shared responsibility: both drivers and the organisation they work for have a role to play. We need to minimise operational practices that have a negative impact. This is starting to happen, but we still have an awful long way to go.

Changing regulations and culture

Paul has conducted a lot of research into fatigue and stress in aviation. Pilots have many of the same issues as bus drivers do. The role is sedentary and they are required to maintain concentration for long periods. Aviation regulations require airlines to manage crew fatigue and airline safety managers now put in place effective strategies to identify fatigue and manage it. None of that exists in the bus and coach industry. The path to more action in this for the PCV sector starts with authorities taking a more serious approach to the issue. We need regulations to drive the change. It is from regulations that action will stem. That does not mean operators should not do anything until regulations are put in place. As an operator, there is a strong argument for doing something even without regulatory requirements. Those that manage their operation better often have a workforce that is healthier and happier.

The first step to better managing a workforce’s fatigue is to talk to drivers about the issue. Unfortunately, drivers may not feel able to talk about fatigue and stress. In common with the transport industry as a whole, the bus and coach industry has a very macho culture. It does require a cultural change in the business. It takes time to change this. Paul suggested putting policies in place as a starting point to creating this change. Most operators already have other policies on drugs, alcohol and mobile phone use; but few have policies on fatigue. Managers also need to take seriously any reports of fatigue and there should be a reporting system and training put in place for drivers.

Drivers’ wellbeing is at the heart of doing this, but there is also a business benefit of monitoring fatigue and stress. The industry never really quantifies the cost of fatigue, in terms of how much it costs to repair bumps and scrapes, increased maintenance and tyre damage, for instance. It’s a good incentive to better manage the problem. It is not just an issue for drivers and managers, but schedulers need training in fatigue management too. They need to know how to design rosters that minimise fatigue. For drivers, there is a whole range of things they can do to prevent fatigue. As a starting point, take sleep seriously. Educate the family; make sure they know you need sleep. Is your sleep protected? People know about sleep hygiene now, how best to design their room for the best sleep. Make sure your room is cool, quiet and dark.

Of course, the realities of an operation mean driving late at night or very early in the morning are sometimes unavoidable. Paul said: “If I had to start driving at 4am, I would have to get up at 3am at the latest. To achieve the amount of sleep I need to be properly rested, I would have to go to bed at 7pm. As you will know, it is difficult to fall and stay asleep at this time in the evening. So maybe we need to do things that mitigate that. Perhaps shorten the duties of drivers that have to do these shifts, perhaps figure out a way for them to do them less often.”

Working with operators

TRL works with operators to develop driver wellbeing programmes that help manage stress and fatigue and improve wellbeing. We can help with developing policies, working with operators to develop good practices to improve wellbeing. We also undertake risk assessments and identify contributors to poor wellbeing.

Paul is also keen to organise a benchmarking system in the bus and coach market about fatigue and stress. People like to see where they stand compared to their competitors. He understands that there needs to be a rationale for spending more time on fatigue management. Sometimes you need a harder edge to convince people. Factors like cost savings, improved productivity, vehicles not having so many bumps and scratches, the effect that has on insurance premiums. Improved driver wellbeing is also likely to result in better driver retention. 

Spotting fatigue

Driver managers should be trained on how to recognise the early warning signs of stress and fatigue. Fatigued people are more insular. They also become irritable, both with their colleagues and the general public. Also, their general humour suffers; tired and fatigued people can be pretty humourless.

In-vehicle telematics offers a way to monitor changes in driver behaviour. Data on harsh braking, harsh accelerations and lane deviations are collected as standard with telematics. This data could be monitored to check whether there is any relation to hours worked, the number of rest days worked and amount of overtime.


Report by Chris Peat

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