In June 2014, a Walmart truck driver, Kevin Roper, failed to notice traffic slowing ahead of him on the New Jersey Turnpike, causing him to crash into the limousine of comedian Tracy Morgan.
News of the accident spread quickly through the media. Morgan, best known for his years spent on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, suffered a severe brain injury, which left him in a coma for days following the accident. Three other people also suffered injuries, and Morgan’s friend and comedian James McNair, also known by his stage name Jimmy Mack, was killed as a result of the accident.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the probable cause of the accident was the truck driver’s fatigue behind the wheel. Roper was awake for more than 25 hours prior to the crash.
At the time of the accident, Roper was on hour 13 of a 14-hour driving shift, which was documented on the truck’s electronic log; however, the log had no way of knowing that, prior to his shift, Roper drove 12 hours from his home in Georgia to Delaware to start his route.
While electronic logging devices (ELDs) are helpful, they can’t see the whole picture. They don’t know what drivers do or don’t do in their spare time. It is the driver’s responsibility to ensure he or she is in a safe driving mindset. In this case, Roper was sleep-deprived, but still technically within his HOS limitations, and chose to attempt his route anyway.
In order to prevent future fatigue-related accidents and fatalities, drivers everywhere should be aware of the causes, symptoms and risks of fatigue behind the wheel.
Causes – Fatigue goes beyond a lack of sleep
There are many factors that cause fatigue, with the most obvious being sleep deprivation. Untreated sleep disorders, such as insomnia or sleep apnea, heavy meals and the use of certain medications are also common causes of fatigue.
Even when a person is well-rested, there are still periods throughout the day during which his or her energy drops. The human body is programmed to stay awake during the day and sleep at night, no matter what schedule the person is on. This is called the circadian cycle, or our internal/biological clock. In addition to sleep cycles, the circadian cycle also controls hormone secretion, blood pressure, heart rate and digestion.
During an average day, there are two circadian cycle low points for humans: one between midnight and 6 a.m. and the other between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. During these periods, fatigue sets in as the person’s metabolism slows.
So what can a driver do to counteract fatigue while behind the wheel?
If you’re driving and notice fatigue-related symptoms, such as yawning, no memory of the last few miles travelled, unintentional lane shifts or delayed braking, you should find a safe place to stop at your earliest opportunity.
GET ACTIVE: Try getting out of your vehicle to stretch your legs or even do a few jumping jacks. When your body is active, there is more oxygen reaching the brain, which helps combat fatigue. A small effort of increase your activity can move more oxygen to your brain and help relieve fatigue.
SHUT DOWN: If being active doesn’t help, a short nap might do the trick. Studies show that taking a short, 20-30 minute ‘power nap’ can help battle fatigue for two- to three-hour periods.
THINK AHEAD: For any driver, the best way to avoid fatigue behind the wheel is making fatigue prevention a priority.
Fatigue prevention is a simple solution to a dangerous problem- fatigued driving.
Here are some tips for preventing fatigued driving before getting behind the wheel:
- Make sure to get a good night’s sleep (about 7-8 hours) before making a long trip
- Know your limits of how much your body can handle while tired
- Try to plan your driving schedule around your body’s circadian low points; for example, try to avoid driving in high traffic areas during the early morning or afternoon hours.
- Avoid heavy meals right before driving, as they can cause drowsiness (think of how sleepy you are after Thanksgiving dinner).
- Take breaks from driving every two hours to stretch and relax.
- Understand what the early signs of fatigue are. If these symptoms appear, take a break.
Following the accident, Roper, the Walmart truck driver in question, was indicted by a New Jersey grand jury on manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault charges. The most serious charge against Roper, aggravated assault in the first degree, carries a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.
The accident that left four people injured and one dead may have been prevented if Roper practiced these fatigue management tips before starting his route. The effect of this highly publicized tragedy shines a light on a simple truth that we often try to push beyond: Our bodies and minds need rest. While we may find reason to try and push those limits, it’s important to recognize that taking proper care of ourselves is the best and safest course on the road.