Lack Of Restful Sleep Accelerating a Driver Exodus In The Trucking Industry
While the trucking industry’s astronomically high truck driver churn rates can be attributed to its physically demanding work detail, there could be another factor that’s left unnoticed.
Welcome to The Logistics Report, a weekly newsletter that discusses anything logistics. This is a space where we dissect market trends, chat with industry thought leaders, highlight supply chain innovation, celebrate startups, and share news nuggets.
For a sector considered the lynchpin of the economy, the trucking industry does get a lot of flak — for its issues with operational visibility, excessive market fragmentation, and its insufferable lack of economies of scale. The concern isn’t misplaced though; the trucking sector is one of those few verticals where the more you scale your operations, the harder it gets to maintain your operational efficiency. Add to it that trucking is a cyclical market, the industry quite clearly isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Yet, the economy will come to a grinding halt if the trucking industry somehow magically disappears overnight. Nearly everything everyone owns has been on the back of a truck at one point in time. And unlike most jobs, truck driving is a round-the-clock affair and is a physically and mentally demanding job with very few parallels in the supply chain. It isn't unusual to see interstate truckers stay away from their families for weeks, eat highly processed food at gas stations, and sleep in their trucks when done for the day.
So, it's no surprise that drivers quit the industry en masse. On average, over 90% of truck drivers leave the firm they work for within a year — these are churn rates that would seem catastrophic in any other industry vertical. But, aside from the commonly debated factors of what leads to these eye-popping quitting figures, one aspect seems to get lost in the weeds — the lack of 'proper' sleep.
The lives of drivers revolve around a monitoring clock called the Electronic Logging Device (ELD), which allows them 11 hours of driving within a 14-hour time window, followed by 10 hours of mandated rest. However, the caveat to ELD is that once the timer starts for the day, it cannot be paused for intervals. This creates a situation where drivers are forced to stay on the road, even if they are fighting fatigue or feeling drowsy.
"Lack of proper sleep can cause accidents, and in some cases, death," said Dean Croke, the principal analyst at DAT Freight & Analytics, and a sleep science expert with over 20 years of experience teaching drivers how to sleep correctly when they're off the clock. Croke was in the trucking business in Australia, starting as a driver and rising the ranks to being a fleet manager. It was at this time that he lost two drivers on his watch, who fell asleep at the wheel and died in the resulting crash.
"Both drivers were 100% compliant with their logs and had a great driving record. They just fell asleep due to exhaustion and killed themselves," rued Croke. "I had to go and deliver the bad news to their families. That's when I stopped being in trucking operations and got out of it for good."
Sleep apnea can be a silent killer
Being passionate about the industry, Croke advocated the need for proper sleep and the disconnect between what the industry regulators deemed as 'compliance' and actual truck safety. "People might say if you're compliant, you're safe. But drivers know that you can be 100% compliant with your ELD and be sound asleep at the wheel at the same time," he said.
This led Croke to study the science of sleep. While he was vice president of transport operations at Circadian Technologies, the team's research on sleep disorders within the trucking population showed close to 40% of drivers suffered from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) symptoms. In contrast, only around 4% of the general population show OSA symptoms. Sleep apnea dramatically increases the risk of coronary artery disease, heart attacks, and strokes, aside from spiking the risk of accidents while on the road.
Sleep apnea sets in when muscles supporting the throat temporarily relax, obstructing the airway and cutting off air to the lungs. This disrupts sleep, with patients struggling to get adequate REM and deep sleep — two critical phases of the sleep cycle required to keep people healthy. Diminishing quality of sleep results in exhaustion and increased fatigue throughout the day, leading to depression, obesity, blood pressure, and cardiac complexities.
Croke started giving sleep classes in the early 2000s, conducting over 600 such sessions in the last two decades and educating thousands of drivers on restful sleep. Around this time, Croke's father — a seasoned truck driver himself — passed away due to cardiac arrest after years of struggling with high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.
Treating symptoms and not the cause
It took Croke several months to realize that his dad had died of undiagnosed sleep apnea — a case of cruel irony considering Croke was researching the very same condition for years by that time. "He had all the symptoms. In the emergency room, the doctors picked up on him having those mini-strokes and heart attacks, but no one noticed that he was gasping for air. Including myself, even though I was teaching sleep classes and researching about the very sleep apnea he suffered from."
This, in essence, is the bulk of the problem that patients and medical practitioners face with treating sleep apnea — the symptoms can be very misleading considering they have a lot in common with more widespread ailments like breathing or cardiac issues.
Croke mentioned that the lack of sleep results in mounting headaches. "The pain is unbelievable. You feel like you're losing your mind. You forget where you need to go to collect the load and where to deliver it. This is why so many truckers quit their job. They are sleep deprived and unhealthy. Helping them sleep better is crucial to reduce high driver churn rates."
That would mean starting the day and ending it at roughly the same time every day. The human brain needs only about six hours of uninterrupted sleep every 24 hours and one restful night's sleep to dispense any sleep debt from previous days. With proper planning, truckers can afford decent sleep during the weekdays and get their restful night's sleep at home if they can be back during the weekends.
Building an industry narrative around sleep apnea
Croke explained that sleep apnea was not big on the Department of Transportation (DOT) radar in the early 2000s. "Back then, the only question during the commercial driver's license (CDL) exam was if you snore. That was the litmus test to check if you had sleep apnea. And, of course, everyone said no," said Croke.
Now, the DOT physical tests have gotten stricter. They calculate the driver's body mass index, measure their neck size, and record diastolic blood pressure to check for irregularities. For instance, if blood pressure is abnormal, the driver will be given a three-month card that records their blood pressure levels. If the levels aren't controlled, they will lose their license.
"Doctors are cautious about who they approve to drive a big truck due to the litigation angle. Plaintiff attorneys are looking at companies with big pockets to prosecute trucking accidents," said Croke.
Regardless, a significant chunk of the trucking community continues to experience undiagnosed sleep apnea, struggling to comprehend the anxiety and depression hitting them every day. "A lot of them don't realize what causes it. They're making bad choices at restaurants and truck stops, putting on weight. They don't know how to break that cycle and get off that treadmill. We all need to talk about it to help these drivers understand what they're going through. That's the first step to getting them on the long road to recovery."
The Week in Snippets
US trucking giant Yellow has finally ceased operations after its accumulated debt and clashes with the Teamsters union drove it to bankruptcy. Despite absorbing rivals, seeking concessions, and receiving a significant government bailout, Yellow struggled to sustain service quality or financial viability. The shutdown risks jeopardizing nearly 30,000 jobs and casts doubts on a $700 million Covid rescue loan granted by the Trump administration in 2020.
Starting in five months, the European Union will extend its emissions trading system (ETS) to include shipping, imposing a carbon tax that will influence shipping costs globally. While aimed at reducing emissions from ships, the tax will impact carriers and shippers even beyond the EU, as vessels making part of their journey through EU ports will face penalties. This move could lead to increased pricing and potential shifts in shipping routes as companies navigate the new carbon tax landscape.
The stricken Panama-flagged car carrier, Fremantle Highway, which is currently under tow while still burning, has revealed a higher number of electric cars on board than initially reported. With an electric vehicle (EV) count of 498, significantly more than the previously stated 25, the vessel's increased battery cargo has raised concerns similar to those seen in the incident involving the sinking of the Felicity Ace last year. The challenge of extinguishing lithium-ion battery fires within EVs continues to pose safety and salvage concerns for the maritime industry.
A gradual shift in supply chains since the pandemic saw Mexico surpass China as the leading US exporter for three months in a row, prompting crucial adjustments with far-reaching implications for logistics infrastructure and workforce dynamics. While US imports from Asia declined notably, imports from Mexico and Canada surged, underscoring a strategic reconfiguration. This move toward reshoring and nearshoring might demand a overhaul of supply chain strategies, emphasizing labor shifts, heightened collaboration, and a meticulous recalibration of return logistics arrangements.
“There is a labor shortage. There are about 650,000 workers missing from the construction industry, and construction backlogs are now at a four-year high.”
- Maria Davidson, CEO and Founder of Kojo, a materials management company, commenting on the construction industry that is facing an extreme labor crunch.
Like what you read? Do consider subscribing! Have something you’d like me to cover? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org