There’s only one cure for fatigue – sleep, of course. But, this isn’t about that. I think we all know when it’s time to park it and take a nap. This is about some of the crazy things drivers do, to keep themselves awake, when they start getting sleepy. Every driver has a certain technique that works for him or her. It’s scary and funny to listen to some of them.
Some slap themselves on the thigh, or even in the face. Some pinch themselves and some splash water on themselves. Some sing, yell, cuss, scream, stomp on the floor, fight the steering wheel and dashboard. Some stick their head out the window and some do all of the above. Most sleepy drivers blast the air conditioning and the radio, open the windows, talk on the CB radio, and pull over soon. But some have a tendency to really push it to the limit, and then some.
I rode with a driver, one very long night, who did most of the above. I tried to get him to let me drive (I was a company driver too, but he thought he couldn’t let me drive his truck for some reason) or at least stop and take a nap, but he just kept going, saying he was alright and that he does this all the time. I was so scared that I was wide awake and really should have been the one driving. He was slapping his face and thigh, stomping on the floor and punching the steering wheel, while struggling to shake off the need to close his eyes. He slapped his thigh more times than an episode of Hee-Haw. I kept talking to him to try to help keep him awake (and to make sure he was). A few times, I even thought that I might have to grab the steering wheel. Sometimes he stuck his head out his window and, as the wind pounded his face, he screamed, “Wake up!” He would then calmly turn to me and say, “Don’t mind me, I’m not mad at you, I’m just screaming at myself.”
Later that day, I told a few drivers about it and some of them told me what they do to stay awake. One driver said he belts out the Star Spangled Banner. He even gave us a sample of it, which was really good singing, but super, painfully loud. I remember thinking that the sheer volume of it would surely wake up anyone. Another driver said he carries a squirt gun and shoots himself in the face and chest. Someone else said he pours water, by the cup, down his back and on his head. And those were some of the “tame” ones!
One driver said his wife keeps him awake. He said she talked a lot anyway and when he would get tired, he would tell her to start nagging, and she would scream complaints at him, like she really meant them, but of course she didn’t. He would scream back at her and turn it into a friendly (though deadly sounding) argument, where cussing and screaming meant nothing. He was convinced that he and his wife never fought for real because of this game they played.
Some told stories of driving hundreds of miles and not remembering any of it. One driver even told of getting fuel and not remembering. He didn’t even have a fuel receipt and was never billed for it, so he must have stolen it without knowing (or remembering). All of them had experienced dozing off and waking up just as they almost go off the road, or catching themselves going across a lane or two. Some weren’t so lucky. If you’ve driven a truck for any length of time, you’ve probably seen many of them – in mangled, multi-vehicle wrecks, on the side of the road.
Everybody seemed to agree that, around dawn, they get the urge to doze, and some at about 3 or 4 AM too. Then, they get a so-called second wind and are awake again, for a while. Most will stop every hour or two, for at least a few minutes, get out and stretch their legs, walk around, maybe do a little exercise, get something to drink and then try it again (this kind of activity only buys a little time).
I am a day person. I like to sleep at night and work during the day. I always had difficulty driving all night. Except when I did it regularly (working nights and sleeping during the day), then I got used to it. But, when you’re accustomed to going to sleep at 11 PM and waking up at 6 AM, every day, then suddenly you have to stay awake all night, it’s a difficult thing to do. Companies who move a lot of freight at these hours should try to keep the same drivers on night runs, so their bodies (and brains) can get used to the schedule.
There is a lot of pressure on drivers to always be on time. Too often, they are expected to drive all night, when they haven’t slept during the day. Some of the companies I have worked for used to do that to me occasionally. They would give me ample time for the load, but my body wouldn’t cooperate. Usually, it went like this: at about 8 AM, when just waking up and getting going, they would dispatch me on a load that had to be picked up at 8 PM and delivered 600 miles away, by 7 AM. I’d realize that I would have to drive all night, so I’d try to get some rest. But I wouldn’t be able to get to sleep, because I just woke up from a long night’s rest. So, I’d toss and turn until about an hour or so before I had to wake up, and then would fall into a deep sleep. Then, too soon, the alarm would go off and it was time to get going.
Some drivers simply refuse the load when they know they can’t do it. Others take everything and never speak up, forcing themselves to stay awake when they should sleep. Then they complain to everyone around them. They’ll speed too, trying to make unrealistic appointments on time, all the while complaining (to everyone but their dispatcher) that the company doesn’t understand. To them I say, please communicate with your dispatchers about what can be realistically expected from you, and don’t walk that fine line between asleep and awake.
Get regular rest. If your company doesn’t understand that, believe me, there are plenty more out there that do. There is no freight more important than you are. Please be careful out there, and be sure to visit Big City Driver the next time you’re online.