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Warning over tired timebomb

PUBLISHED: 23:00 07 April 2003 | UPDATED: 13:42 03 March 2010

FALLING asleep at the wheel can be catastrophic. It is a factor in 20 per cent of all motorway and dual carriageway accidents – cars and lorry collisions – and responsible for 300 deaths a year. Two truckers from Felixstowe are starting four year jail sentences after an overtired lorry driver caused a fatal accident.

EXHAUSTED and overworked truckers are a "timebomb" ticking away on our busy roads.

Long hours on the dual carriageways, under pressure to meet tight delivery deadlines, tackling congestion or the monotony of motorways, lorry drivers face one of the most stressful jobs today – and one where the demands grow daily.

Guiding an articulated truck with a 38-ton load on its back needs a wide-awake, rested and alert driver, with his mind on the road and the safety of all using it.

Thankfully, the vast majority are in full control.

But one "cowboy" trucker breaking the rules can prove lethal – and one momentary loss of concentration can cause mayhem, even death.

No motorist can tell whether the £80,000 truck he is overtaking or that's steaming up behind has a fresh, safe driver or one desperately needing a break.

Road experts admit falling asleep at the wheel does happen – but mostly through boredom of the driving, not physical tiredness.

Truck drivers in the UK have to abide by the EC drivers' hours rules – covering daily and fortnightly driving limits, breaks, daily and weekly rest periods, and the use of the tachograph machine.

The tachograph, introduced in the early 1970s, is regarded by lorry drivers as the "spy in the cab" – but without it the system of driving hours would be wide open to abuse.

The machine records on a card the operation of the vehicle. Every time the engine is switched on, the tacho needle starts recording – including journey length, journey time and the speed of the vehicle.

Truckers can only drive for nine hours each day – though this can be ten hours twice a week – and should have a rest period of 45 minutes every four-and-a-half hours.

A weekly rest period must be taken after a six days' driving and no-one must drive more than 90 hours in a fortnight. Drivers must also have an 11-hour daily rest, though this can be reduced to nine hours three times a week as long as they gain the extra rest the following week.

Later this year when the EC Working Time Directive comes into force, drivers will only be able to work an average 48 hour week.

It is the driver's responsibility to complete the tacho card and make sure that it is always in the correct mode. The cards are checked regularly and the sealed machines every two years to make sure they are working properly.

The Road Haulage Association says the rules are complex – but is convinced they are necessary and do work.

"The EC rules are very complex but they are there to make sure drivers do not get too tired to do their job and make sure they have proper rest," said RHA spokesman Steve Williams.

"For a driver to fall asleep at the wheel and be involved in an accident is quite a rare occurrence. The vast majority of them stick to the rules and take their rests. They know the tachograph will catch them out otherwise.

"The drivers have to know all the driving hours rules, and then they are stuck in a cab, driving at a solid 56mph because limiters restrict the speed, for hours on end with virtually no engine noise in these powerful lorries, and just the radio for company.

"It can be very boring, and while they are not physically tired, there is stress and fatigue in the driving. It is more likely boredom that will cause a few to fall asleep than tiredness."

Mr Williams said any driver or company facing prosecution for tachograph offences would have to appear before the Transport Commissioners and could face the loss or suspension of their operator's licence.

DELIVERY deadlines are a nightmare for truck drivers.

Timings can be thrown completely by the smallest hold up or congestion – usually caused by an accident – leaving them missing appointments at ports, drop-offs at factories and new pick-ups.

One lorry driver, who agreed to speak to the Evening Star but asked not to be named, said: "Deadlines for delivery are sometimes just impossible.

"You drop a load off at one end of the A14, by the time you have picked up your return load from somewhere else more time has gone by, and then you know you cannot make the time you are supposed to get back.

"With limiters on the lorries you cannot go over 56mph and with the tachograph watching you, you must not break the law. But your boss wants your load at a certain place at a certain time because that's what he has promised the customer.

"It's a no-win situation.

"I know drivers who will cut corners, knock a bit off their break, go as fast as they can, but it's not worth it. You could end up going over somewhere – probably at the dock spur roundabout!"

He had not heard drivers talking about falling asleep at the wheel or tiredness.

"There isn't any reason why people should be tired if you stick to the driving hours and rest periods – you don't have to drive four-and-a-half hours because you could stop more often and have shorter rests," he said.

One haulage manager said: "I would be absolutely furious if I thought any of our lads were cutting corners and breaking the rules.

"That sort of behaviour puts them in danger, others on the roads in danger, and threatens our company, its reputation and business.

"This is a tough business but so are many industries. But there is no excuse for breaking the rules."

factfile: Falling asleep at the wheel

n Tiredness in drivers is not confined to truckers but is also a problem for motorists.

n Government statistics show falling asleep at the wheel is a factor in ten per cent of all accidents and 20pc of collisions on motorways and dual carriageways.

n These collisions result in an average of 300 deaths a year and many thousands of injuries.

n The accidents mostly involve vehicles running off the road or into the back of another vehicle, and are worsened by the high speed of impact as the driver has not braked beforehand.

n The worst time for "falling asleep" crashes is between midnight and 6am and 2pm and 4pm.

n Male drivers aged 30 years and under are more likely to have a sleep related vehicle accident.

Source: Department of Transport


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