Driving Long-Haul? Here Are 5 Ways To Stay Alert Behind The Wheel
If you’re thinking of taking up long-distance driving (typically 48 to 60 hours per week), you better be prepared. If you’re a short-haul driver, staying awake won’t likely be a daily challenge. But for long-haul journeys, staying awake is all too common – and dangerous – struggle.
Driver fatigue is a leading cause of crashes and motorway fatalities in the UK. Among fatigue-related crashes, as many as 40% are caused by or involve hauliers. It also comes as no surprise that, on the road, the largest vehicles often cause the most damage in a crash or collision.
To stay safe, rather than sorry, here are five tips to help you stay alert and focused on long journeys:
1. Know when to stop
The pressure of managing timely deliveries can push many lorry drivers into enduring unhealthy amounts of consecutive driving, despite tiredness. But it’s important to identify the earliest onset of drowsiness and to stop fully. Take a rest, even a short one. When your eyelids droop and your head starts to nod, it’s already too late.
In the UK, the law prohibits nonstop driving for more than 5.5 hours. After that, drivers must take a 45-minute break (optionally split into two breaks of fifteen and thirty minutes). In the European Union, the same law applies after 4.5 hours of nonstop driving. But research shows that focus starts to decline after as little as two hours of driving.
If you regularly go on long-haul journeys, it might be worth investing in driver distraction and drowsiness recognition (DDDR) technology. The system is fitted into the truck with sensors designed to detect physical signs of fatigue. When the system detects a symptom like slower eye blinking, it produces an alert for the driver to take a break.
Some DDDRs are biometric and can even monitor your heart rate. Others are designed to alert you based on driving patterns associated with distraction. Explore the possibilities by doing research online or ask your fleet owner for support.
2. Take strategic power naps
Taking strategic power naps is the best preventative method for drowsiness. A power nap usually lasts 10 to 20 minutes, ending before you slip into a deep snooze. These kinds of short naps make your brain sharper for longer (unlike coffee, which just makes you wired). They’ve been proven to re-energise and revitalise in virtually no time.
Statistically, the peak times for crashes caused by drowsiness are between 2am to 6am and 2pm to 4pm. It’s worth knowing that drivers at 6am are 20 times more likely to fall asleep at the wheel than at 10am. Those are just the hours we are naturally more tired.
Try to pick up on patterns in your own tiredness and plan some rest stops accordingly. That said, power naps won’t make up for lack of a proper 8-hour sleep every day. (Most long-haul lorry drivers report sleeping an average of 4-5 hours, which is critically unhealthy.) But a quick nod-off is a surprisingly effective boost on those long, all-day journeys.
Limited physical activity is one of the biggest downsides of long-haul driving. Staying active is good for countless reasons, including prevention of disease and other health issues linked to obesity such as sleep apnea. But fitness is also a directly related to alertness.
It’s admittedly not easy to find time to rest, exercise and make the delivery on schedule. But adopting even the most basic exercise regimen can go a long way. There are simple exercises you can do without leaving the truck to help alertness. Scania Driver Care (one of our partners) outlines some practical in-vehicle exercises to keep your body mobile, and your mind fresh, on long journeys.
There are also apps designed to help drivers stay attentive on the road. One such app is the Active Trucker. In the UK, on-the-road gym facilities are also beginning to emerge. Road Runners Gym at Ashford International Truckstop near Dover is one that offers fully equipped services to help truck drivers stay fit on their journeys.
4. Eat well, stay hydrated
Food is our fuel and it determines our level of focus. Bad eating habits deregulate your energy and mood, leading to poor brain function and even depression. Just as you shouldn’t fill your truck with vegetable oil to get it going, you shouldn’t fill yourself with sugary drinks and fatty foods to stay alert.
Of course, it’s hard to find healthy food on the road. But you can keep nutritional stimulants like fruits or nuts on hand. Snacking on blueberries has been proven to boost concentration and memory for up to five hours due to the antioxidants stimulating the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. Almonds are also great sources of magnesium and potassium.
Just as importantly: drink enough water. If you drink coffee to stay awake, you’ll be even more dehydrated - so double up on water! Water is also fuel for the brain, affecting everything from focus to memory. It might mean more bathroom stops, but staying hydrated has been proven to helps you think faster. Water is also essential for every single other function of your body. Ensure you get enough every day.
5. Stay entertained
On motorways with repetitive landscapes, keeping yourself engaged with your surroundings can be tricky. Bad congestion can be especially mind-numbing. When the mind is bored, its lack of stimulation affects concentration negatively.
Use music to stimulate your senses. If the radio’s not your cup of tea, get yourself a Spotify account and fill it with all your favourite music. Crank up the volume, sing along to the tunes and get that mental energy boost.
Aside from music, audiobooks and podcasts are also great for the road. If you’re particularly passionate about trucking, there are a lot of podcasts dedicated to the trade like Red Eye Radio for long-haul drivers, or Trucking Podcast for truck aficionados. There are a lot more where that came from.