Are all HGV drivers getting enough sleep?

Tired lorry drivers pose a real threat to cyclists as they are too tired to see them
A BBC Radio 4 programme looking at the impact of sleep deprivation on health and safety has drawn attention to the risks taken by HGV drivers who don’t get a good night’s sleep. CTC's Rhia Favero explains why this poses a threat to cyclists and other road users.

According to BBC Radio 4's The Night Shift, the list of illnesses that sleep deprivation can contribute to is a terrifying one – obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and on top of all that premature ageing as well. One glance at this list would make anyone think twice before accepting a job working nights. Sleep deprivation also affects the ability to drive safely.

Driving tired

When drivers are tired, their capacity to stay vigilant and alert deteriorates.Their performance drops, they lose the ability to control their speed and end up veering across road lines. According to the ‘Rules on Drivers’ Hours and Tacographs’ (produced in 2011 by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency), up to one in five serious road crashes are caused by driver fatigue.

The deaths of Toby Wallace and Andrew McMenigall as they cycled along the A30 in July 2013 were caused by a sleep deprived driver. The HGV driver that drove straight into the back of them without braking was extremely fatigued and exhausted after carrying out consecutive night and day time shifts and sleeping for just three hours in between.  

Once the risk of crashing a vehicle is added to the list of things that can kill you or others by not getting enough sleep, night jobs become even less appealing. But what if the bills are piling up and you need a second job? Some people might just take the risk. 

For the programme ‘The Night Shift’, Radio 4 presenter Sarah Montague spoke to someone in this situation who drives trucks around the country during the day and works as a cleaner at night. He gets only three hours sleep in between jobs and does this six days a week. It’s only a matter of time before he causes a serious crash like the one that killed Toby and Andrew. 

Under-Resourced Regulators

In the foreword to VOSA's drivers' hours rules, Beverley Bell, Senior Traffic Commissioner said that ‘the rules on drivers’ hours and the use of tacographs are absolutely paramount to ensuring that the roads are safe’. If followed, the rules would ensure the public is safe on the roads, but the rules aren’t always followed, and Traffic Commissioners are running to catch up with operators who flout them.  

Traffic Commissioners are significantly under-resourced. They are unable to examine all the reports they receive and have no power of investigation. They rely on the police or the Driver Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) to send them evidence of possible infringements, but there is no standardised reporting process.  

The cleaner’s story begs the question, how many HGV operators have hired drivers who work two jobs? If an employee doesn’t mention they have two jobs, an operator won’t be aware that they could be fatigued, but that doesn’t mean an operator can’t take the extra step to check. But, without a serious risk of being caught by the regulator for not conducting due diligence checks on employees, it’s unlikely that an unscrupulous operator will conduct those checks.  

The commissioners need to be better resourced to keep tabs on operators and the process for reporting incidents needs to be streamlined if they are to prevent disreputable operators from putting dangerous drivers on the road. They need to be supported in this regulatory role by an investigatory body, effectively a roads equivalent of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB).  

Banning lorries during rush hour and making trucks safer is one way to combat the danger of HGVs, but regulators should also ensure operators don’t employ drivers with poor driving records or who will be tired on the job from working nights or not taking the correct amount of rest. Until the necessary resources are invested, Traffic Commissioners will continue to struggle to do this.

Drivers' Hours Rules

The hours that drivers are permitted to work are regulated in order to prevent them from getting fatigued. Driving time limits also protect drivers from employers who try to by-pass regulations in the pursuit of profit. The EU rules limit the number of hours drivers can drive in a day (9 hours a day or 10 hours twice a week), in a week (56 hours) and in a fortnight (90 hours).

Breaks are also regulated: after a driving period of 4.5 hours, drivers must take a break of at least 45 minutes. During this break the driver shouldn’t carry out any driving or any other work; it is purely for recuperation. During each period of 24 hours worked, drivers must take daily rests of at least 11 hours. Time spent working in other employment or under obligation or instruction does not count as rest. 

For detailed information about drivers' hours rules, see 'Rules on Drivers Hours and Tachographs: Goods Vehicles in Great Britain and Europe.'

CTC's Campaigns team and the Cyclists' Defence Fund work hard to make the roads safer for cyclists.