Driving under the influence

Could narcotics and chronic medical conditions be responsible for so many truck and bus drivers falling asleep at the wheel?

The N2 national road between Johannesburg and Durban is one of South Africa’s busiest trucking routes. As a regular motorist along this road, I am always alarmed at the number of truck accidents I witness. During almost every trip I make along the N2, I come across at least one road accident involving a truck. In many cases, it appears that the driver  must either have fallen asleep or blacked out behind the wheel.

Because there is no legislation in South Africa governing maximum driving hours per day, many long-distance heavy truck drivers push themselves well beyond their physical capabilities and do fall asleep at the wheel. However, there is mounting concern internationally that an increasing number of road accidents involving trucks are caused by drivers under the influence of narcotic drugs that provide the stamina for them to complete their journeys. Could this be a factor in the high incidence of truck accidents in South Africa where drivers have either blacked out or fallen asleep at the wheel?

Another factor could be the effect that HIV infection may have on a truck or bus driver’s ability to safely control a vehicle and stay awake. Hypertension, epilepsy and uncontrolled diabetes can also affect a driver’s performance.

On a recent return trip from KwaZulu-Natal, I came across a truck that had overturned on the highway, dumping 35 t of sugar on the roadside. The road had been closed so that the breakdown recovery vehicle could pull the overturned vehicle back onto its wheels. During the time that I had to wait for the road to re-open, I took the opportunity to talk to the drivers of some of the trucks parked next to me. It soon became apparent that, in their opinion, the driver of the overturned truck had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Their theory was based on the fact that some of them had seen the truck concerned join the queue at a Durban sugar mill at around 20:00 the previous night. They then told me that it was impossible for any drivers in the queue to sleep because it was continually moving forward. The driver of the overturned truck had probably started his homeward journey in the early hours of the morning and, as the sun came up, he could well have  fallen asleep at the wheel.

Each of the truck drivers participating in this discussion complained about long driving hours, the risks entailed and the need for a daily cap on the number of hours spent behind the wheel of a truck or bus. I was told that many road transport operators adopt a reward-based wage system calculated according to the number of kilometres driven during the  month. It soon became clear that the only way for a truck driver to earn a living wage is to drive continuously by pushing himself far beyond the physical safety limit.

I was also told that truck and bus owners require their drivers to engage the cruise control system in their vehicles in order to save fuel. In the opinion of the truck drivers I spoke to, this is extremely dangerous on long trips. When the cruise control is engaged, the engine remains at a constant speed for extended periods. This can be monotonous and result in a driver falling asleep at the wheel. Without the cruise control engaged, if a driver begins to doze, the foot he uses to control the vehicle’s accelerator pedal usually relaxes, resulting in a change in engine and vehicle speed which should soon wake him up.

South Africa cannot afford to allow its high truck and bus accident rate to persist. I urge all truck and bus operators, as well as law enforcement officers, to make stricter and more frequent checks of driver health and driving capability.


One of this country’s most respected commercial vehicle industry authorities, VIC OLIVER has been in this industry for 45 years. Before joining the FOCUS team, he spent 15 years with Nissan Diesel, 11 years with Busaf and seven years with International.

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Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publication in southern Africa.
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