Real data to drive understanding of fatigue

Few topics stir up passionate debate among road transport operators like fatigue regulation. Balancing allowable hours, adequate rest and the allocation of breaks has proven a recurring challenge for policymakers with camps split on determining where the optimal solution lies. Throw into the mix Australia’s sparse geography and the practicality of prescriptive regulations begins to falter.

Many readers will recall the reforms of 2008 which gave rise to new national road transport laws for fatigue and the development of effective fatigue management systems. A number of operators have successfully adapted their practices to comply with the regulations and maximise their productivity through efficient scheduling. On the contrary, those operators running irregular routes and timetables often times encounter the frustration of trying to fit a square into a circle.

In May 2014, the Ministerial Transport & Infrastructure Council (TIC) considered what it determined to be potential fatigue risks associated with different ways to count 24-hour periods in the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL). This was based on a report undertaken by the NTC recognising the challenge of measuring the fatigue impact caused by ‘nose-to-tail’ scheduling.

Recognising that the impact of regulations on fatigue under the HVNL had not been evaluated since 2008, the NTC and NHVR were tasked with developing a framework for capturing data to support future reforms.

In May 2016, the NTC released its Final Report on developing a framework for the collection of heavy vehicle driver fatigue data. The forward program for this framework comprises four projects underpinned by research activities to be conducted by the Alertness Safety and Productivity Cooperative Research Centre (CRC):

• Conduct new research to evaluate the fatigue impact of the current laws
• Develop nationally consistent definitions and measurements of fatigue
• Analyse commercial data to evaluate the frequency and impact of fatigue regulations, and
• Review road agencies’ ability to link crash data to driver accreditation.

NatRoad welcomes this first-step to gain evidence based data on fatigue rather than unwieldy assertions about links to safety, remuneration, or any other unrelated data.

Since 2008, erratic calls for reform to fatigue regulation have gained media and political traction. More often than not, such calls are regressive in nature and based upon non-substantive evidence. Government has rightly recognised that changes to fatigue rules are not warranted without further data demonstrating a substantiated case for change.

The message is clear from industry. Drivers need the flexibility to be able to take rest breaks when needed. The regulations for work and rest hours are complex with strict adherence requirements contributing to driver stress. Increasing the complexity of the regulations can lead to a narrow focus on simply achieving compliance, steering attention from proactively managing the underlying drivers of fatigue under an outcomes approach.

Much of the criticism towards current fatigue regulation stems from the perception that the scheduled hours for work and rest are not grounded in practical application but formed solely on academic theory. Much of the previous risk assessments related to shift work. Instead, many drivers are operating on task work differing from day to day.

Research projects to be conducted by the CRC have the potential to identify opportunities for introducing flexibility to the regulations. Of particular interest to industry is the proposed comparative research in laboratory and field environments to scientifically evaluate the fatigue impact of the current regulations under the HVNL. A number of concerns identified by the NTC, including the effects of nose-to-tail scheduling and the quantity and quality of sleep attained in major rest breaks, will all benefit from proper and thorough analysis. Such an experiment should provide valuable insights and help to objectively identify where further attention is required. Importantly, empirical evidence will legitimise future reform through better understanding of the ‘complete picture’.

NatRoad looks forward to developments from these projects under the National Heavy Vehicle Fatigue Data Framework and working with government in future consultations to achieve an improved outcome for industry.

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