Deadly fatigue can sneak up on coach drivers

One day in 1967, as I rolled into the crowded Trailways bus terminal in Washington, D.C., at 10 a.m. after working the extra board around the clock for the previous five days, I thought I would finally have some time off to catch up on some sleep.

Pierre “Pete” Brenenstuhl

But the dispatcher had other ideas. “Take eight,” he said.

There was no use in protesting. If you said that you were out of hours, dispatchers would audit your log for that past week and could find 15 to 30 minutes here and there, and tell you to redo your logs to reflect the found time.

That meant no time off, so now I had to drive the bus four miles to the garage, pick up my car and drive 45 minutes home. When I finally got home it was noon and I had used up two hours of my eight hours off-duty time.

Trailways rules permitted the dispatcher to call you one and a half hours before your eight hours were up to ensure you would be at the terminal just as your eight hours off duty expired and, sure enough, Teddy called at 3:30 p.m. and said, “Report at 5 p.m.”

Of course, I had not had a full eight hours of sleep.

So, at 10 p.m., after being on “protection” for five hours, the dispatcher finally called over the P.A., “Operator Brenenstuhl, track 5.”

I quickly finished my third cup of coffee at the snack bar and pushed through the heavy crowd out to the loading tracks and picked up the dispatch phone on the pole next to the bus.

I heard the dispatcher say, “Schedule 1151, third section to Houston, loads Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Danville; cushion home from Danville; have a safe trip.”

I took tickets and counted heads. I checked the overhead parcel rack to make sure carry-on luggage was secure, closed all baggage doors and did a quick pre-trip. Then I counted tickets, slipped them in the envelope, started my log and hit the horn. Beep beep.

With flashers on, I carefully backed out onto the street then went through the gears listening to the Eagle’s deep-throated dual exhaust echo off the empty office buildings on I Street. I was feeling great and it was now 11 p.m.

After driving out of D.C. and through northern Virginia, it was about 12:30 a.m. as I piloted my Eagle crammed full of luggage, freight and sleeping passengers. I could hear their deep breathing and occasional snoring as we glided through the dark night down smooth Route 66.

About then I noticed I was getting very sleepy, so much so that I opened the little toll window and thrust my hand outside trying to direct cool air up to my face. I remember forcing my eyes wide open, shaking my head and slapping my face.

Then, suddenly, it felt like someone pulled a chain on a lamp and I was out! To this day I can recall the exact spot on Route 66 where it happened.

The next thing I knew I was miles past the end of four-lane Route 66 when I felt cold air across my face and awoke to find that I was stopped at the RT 29 Railroad crossing in Haymarket. My door was open and the flashers were on!

I was shocked and amazed. How did I get here? But now I was fully awake, so I continued on to Danville for the next three hours, stopping a couple of times “to check tires” and get some fresh, wake-up air.

I experienced a phenomenon called “Perception without awareness.” My conscious mind went to sleep and my subconscious was driving the bus. This is a common, but dangerous, condition, reported by many overnight shift workers including truck drivers, cab drivers and even police officers.

In my case it was a “double whammy” — weeks of sleep-deprived fatigue and disruption of the natural circadian rhythm. Mystery miles (perception without awareness) were so common in the industry that we all joked about how many miles we slept behind the wheel,

So how did we get away with it for so long, especially when (before DOT hours-of-service changes) our extra board was filled with part-time drivers (teachers, police officers, firemen, clerks, city bus drivers, etc.) on weekends and holidays that already worked full-time jobs during the week and reported Friday night after getting off work?

Perhaps it was because most of our runs were on two lane winding roads, coupled with the constant planning and calculation for braking and shifting of our non-automatic transmissions (stick sifts to us older guys).

We had no reportable sleep-related accidents ourselves, but I did loose eight of my colleagues in two years (six killed while deadheading on one bus, two on another) because of sleepy, semi-truck drivers crossing the centerline, one of whom had failed to take his eight hours of rest at the company hotel room and went out dancing instead.

So now that we have these glaring examples of deadly fatigue, let’s take a look at how the problem is sneaking up on our drivers today.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported more than 37,000 traffic fatalities in 2016, 803 of them caused by “drowsy driving.”

This occurs not only at night, but also mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

Some of those statistics occur later in the day because there is also a natural increase in our brains’ drive to nap during the mid-afternoon hours.

In addition to that bit of information, there is another little-known but well-documented accident danger time during the mid-morning hours. Crashes during this time can be sleep related, but also have been attributed to a sudden drop in blood sugar due to a poor breakfast, such as coffee and doughnuts, or none at all.

Sadly, in spite of new DOT HOS regulations and an increased focus on driver fatigue, there continues to be too many instances of motorcoach drivers involved in fatigue- or sleep-related accidents during overnight trips. What can be done to eliminate this problem?

The National Safety Council advises not to drive between midnight and 5 a.m., and some bus operators are doing exactly that.

John Kruger, vice president of operations for Onondaga Coach Tours, and John Coakey, vice president of operations for Klein Transportation, both discourage groups from doing overnight trips and educate customers to the dangers of doing so.

They both say that the most misunderstood and often overlooked factor when assigning a driver to an overnight trip is his or her complicated circadian rhythm or biological clock, which regulates sleep-wake cycles and cannot be reset or adjusted just because a driver goes to bed late in the day.

So Kruger encourages groups to modify their departure times to minimize their exposure to the deadly midnight-to-5 a.m. danger zone.

Coakey does the same in addition to giving the driver a five-day notice to acclimate as much as possible. The safety director of another large operator who asked that his name not be used puts a second driver on overnight trips of 10 hours of less, splitting the driving time every two hours or so to give an extra margin of safety. That still allows the economy of no overnight stops for the group while adding just a few dollars to the cost of trip.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that it is difficult to sleep during normal waking hours since the biological sleep cycle is set for much later and the body doesn’t start producing melatonin until about 9 p.m.

And how do you know that your driver really went to sleep and didn’t spend time with the group, watch TV or use a smartphone? Unless, like the astronauts, the driver wears a GPS/telemetry blood-pressure and heart-rate monitor that can send you an alarm.

Other factors preventing drivers from getting quality sleep is light. Normal room light, sunlight or blue light from the computer, smartphones, TV or power chargers can stop the production of sleep-producing melatonin.

Then there’s that pesky blinking alarm clock red light next to the bed, which I cover up. And while the room may be fully darkened, there are the noises that many commercial drivers and pilots complain about on layovers, such as doors slamming and people laughing and talking loudly in the halls.

So you may want to include this subject in your training program and set some rules for your billeted drivers:

  • Go to bed at an appointed time and do not mix with the group.
  • Avoid big meals just before going to bed.
  • Eliminate all light, especially the blue light from computers, smartphones and power chargers.
  • Don’t watch TV in bed, as that also is a source of blue light that inhibits sleep.

In the meantime, take a close look at your company’s overnight trip booking policies and be proactive. Educate your customers on the dangers of overnight trips. Would they pay an extra few dollars for the trip to get a loved one’s life back?

Don’t accept that booking if you have any doubts. Adopt some of the policies that are working for many others in our motorcoach family.

And finally, let us know how you are dealing with overnight trips and driver fatigue.

Pete Brenenstuhl is CEO of Prodrive Safety ( He can be reached at

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