THE build-up to the festive period is one of excitement certainly, but often also stress. For business drivers, this is a familiar time of rushing to and fro, dealing with higher workloads, and often feeling increasingly exhausted.
Research by RED Driver Training shows that thousands of business drivers suffer from what the company has termed Seasonally Affective Driver Disorder (SADD). SADD is a phenomenon that affects all types of business drivers, whether they are in a company car, delivery van or HGV, and results in the potential for higher risk and lower productivity.
But what are the signs of driver fatigue, and what can you do as both a business manager and driver about avoiding a potentially dangerous situation?
Analysis of more than 3,000 business drivers using RED Driver Risk Management’s Wellbeing Profiler has shown they suffer from more anxiety, stress, fatigue and mental health issues between November and February than at any other time of year.
Company car drivers deal with a litany of pressures throughout the year but, as with much of life, these are amplified around Christmas.
Congestion is not a particularly seasonal event – barring holiday hotspots in summer – though there are certainly greater numbers of trips made in the run up to Christmas by both business and domestic drivers.
Alongside this higher number of road users comes a greater level of shared stress. It means that each road user is more likely to feel stressed themselves, and there are more of them. Put this way, it sounds like the beginning of a perfect storm.
Delivery drivers in particular are likely to be feeling additional pressures. In a post-Covid world, consumers are shopping online at a higher rate than ever.
And then there are the seasonal factors to contend with; the weather and time of year. Shorter days bring greater periods of night-time driving, and poor weather conditions are a regular occurrence. Rain, and in particular sleet, snow, ice, frost and flooding can all be expected during winter months.
It’s a more sociable time of year, too, with pressure to spend time meeting friends, family and colleagues “because it’s Christmas”. But that puts more pressure on the calendar, and the wick can be burnt at both ends by drivers.
Recognising The Signs
Put simply, the signs of driver fatigue are those of fatigue in general. When the person in question is driving a vehicle, however, it makes this situation far more dangerous. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), driver fatigue may be a contributory factor in up to 20 percent of road accidents, and up to a quarter of fatal or serious accidents.
A fifth of drivers who responded to RED’s Wellbeing Profiler poll claimed to be tired during winter months, 12 percent stated they were ‘exhausted’, and 10 percent reported experiencing anxiety during darker days.
Overwhelming tiredness is the most associated aspect of fatigue, with the driver more likely to fall asleep at the wheel in the worst-case scenario.
Before that however there are plenty of indications that fatigue is setting in. Reduced reaction times will often see “unexpected” events, such as traffic cones appearing from nowhere, or other vehicles suddenly alongside.
Changes in speed are commonplace. A fatigued driver is less able to regulate a constant pace. This can result in speed limits being exceeded and also unexpected braking events for other road users to contend with.
Apart from struggling to moderate speed, other signs that fatigue is impacting their ability to drive safely are difficulty keeping the car in lane, clipping kerbs and lacking the ability to respond to changing road conditions
There are other issues to contend with as well, such as being over the drink drive limits from the previous night’s drinking or driving with a hangover. With greater levels of merriment than usual, drink driving incidents increase every year at this time.
There are physical issues that will affect the driver in question too, such as muscle stiffness from prolonged periods of sitting behind the wheel, or aches in shoulders from holding the wheel without the recommended breaks in driving.
RED Driver Risk Management CEO Ian McIntosh said:
The fact that driving impacts more negatively on a person’s mental health during winter is another hurdle to overcome for those already experiencing tiredness or depression. Seasonally Affective Driver Disorder can result in more sick days being taken, reduced productivity and, of course, is a real danger too, exacerbating the risk of accidents. Companies are far more aware of the need to support those employees struggling with mental health, and those tucked away in their cars and vans, often alone for hours on end every day, should not be forgotten.
The driver must be conscious of the effects fatigue can have on the safety of their driving, and realistically should take sensible precautions to ensure driving is not an afterthought. This, of course, is difficult if you’re being pressurised to fit more into an already tight schedule.
However, there is plenty that a business can do to support their drivers, making it easier for the personnel to feel as though stress and fatigue is not inevitable, but something that can be dealt with – before or after it takes hold.
Employers should consider that they:
- Avoid putting too much pressure on the workforce. Allowing them to work at a pace that they feel comfortable with, and avoiding increasing workloads on already stressed employees, will boost productivity, morale and reduce fatigue
- Plan and brief drivers on the expected workload so they can predict when demands may be higher than usual, manage schedules, and prepare themselves.
- Provide support. Increasing communication levels and offering an ear to listen to concerns will not only directly tackle issues, but will improve overall workplace happiness. Even if the support systems aren’t used, the fact they are there will help drivers.
- Stay vigilant and be mindful that stress and fatigue are prevalent at this time of year, keeping an eye out for signs that a driver is suffering. On occasion, they will not realise what the issues are, and intervention from their employee may be required.
- Ensure policies on drink and drug use are maintained at a time of year when hair tends to be let down. By keeping standards high, drivers will be forced to be vigilant, improving safety for them and other road users.
Simon Turner, Campaign Manager of the government-backed Driving for Better Business programme says employers need to ask themselves whether any of their practices inadvertently reward people for working long hours or give drivers an incentive to hide fatigue.
Would a driver complaining of fatigue be seen as ‘letting the side down’? Look at your work patterns to see if you can alter any that may lead to fatigue and ensure your drivers get adequate rest. Most importantly, remember that having a fatigue management policy is not enough. You must be able to demonstrate that it has been communicated effectively and that compliance is being monitored.
Much of what creates fatigue and stress in drivers comes from outside sources, but the vehicle itself can play a big part too. By ensuring the vehicle is well prepared, it removes – or at least reduces the impact of – one cause of stress, and incremental gains can result in large improvements.
Independent fleet management specialist Venson Automotive Solutions recommends following the below points to ensure vehicles are in good condition no matter what the conditions.
- Provide drivers with a clear and easy-to-follow essential maintenance checklist to carry out each week, including tyre tread (minimum 3mm), wiper blade condition, headlights and glass, levels of oil, coolant, screen wash, and de-icer.
- Remind drivers to check their vehicle condition in daylight or in a fully lit garage.
- Continue with service schedules and MOT bookings.
- Keep essential telephone numbers – breakdown provider, fleet team number – not just in a phone but in the vehicle as a back-up.
- Consider providing drivers with a safety kit to keep in their vehicle – high-visibility vest, a blanket, torch, first aid kit and a phone charger.
- Use the vehicle’s onboard tech to make journeys safe, smoother and more comfortable. For example, sat-navs with traffic data and the latest map updates installed, remote engine start and apps that monitor vehicle health.
How To Mitigate Stress And Fatigue
The best thing to do when feeling overly tired or stressed when driving is to stop. By taking a break, drivers can reset, recuperate and continue their trip when it is safe to do so.
Although this might sound counter-intuitive when rushing about and under pressure, the dangers of driving when stressed or fatigued far outweigh the downsides of running late or missing jobs. Employers should bear this in mind, not only when planning jobs, but also if there are delays brought about by essential breaks.
By stopping somewhere safe – not just on the side of a road, but in locations such as lay-bys, services, petrol stations – drivers can get some fresh air and stretch their legs, or take a nap. Recommended sleeping times are around 15-20 minutes to allow a deep enough sleep to recuperate, but not exacerbate tiredness or encroach further on work times.
Drivers should not be behind the wheel for more than eight hours a day, and breaks should be taken every two to three hours. Coffee or a caffeinated drink can help boost attention levels temporarily but should not be used as a crutch to continue driving regularly. Large meals can induce sluggishness, so are best avoided shortly before or during driving.
Fatigue and stress can be reduced before driving by ensuring a good night’s sleep is achieved, and managing workloads to allow enough time for tasks to be completed. Often, by allowing a buffer of even five minutes for a task, it reduces stress by psychologically allowing the driver to realise there is a contingency in place should hold ups occur.
As with other health and safety in the workplace policies, there are responsibilities on both the driver and employer to ensure safe practices are adhered to. With both parties watchful for the onset of stress and fatigue, a safer and happier Christmas can be had by all.
Here’s More Guidance On Helping Fleet Drivers
Download FleetandLeasing.com’s Guide to Drivers’ Mental Health Awareness