Speedhead Truckers: The Problem With Truckers Using Stimulant Drugs to Stay Awake

The life of a truck driver is a demanding one. In addition to back-breaking driving, truckers must also contend with extremely long hours, deadline anxiety, and numbing loneliness, all for the sake of a paycheck.

As a result of this difficult lifestyle, some truck drivers rely on illegal “aids” to help them cope. Some drivers turn to alcohol to numb the loneliness while others smoke marijuana to
break up the monotony of the drive.

However, recent studies have also shown an increase among truck drivers in the use of stimulants, such as amphetamines, “uppers,” and cocaine to combat driver fatigue and anxiety.

The Problem: Fatigue’s Need for Speed

Fatigue is such a problem for truckers, who are expected to drive up to 70 hours a week, that the federal government had to specifically address the problem. Federal hours of service (HOS) regulations are in place to limit the number of hours a trucker can be required to drive. These rules also mandate the specific hours in which a driver can be on the road, as well as when he must stop to rest. Unfortunately, many truckers choose to violate these rules because missing schedule deadlines may affect their pay (a fact that just adds more stress and increases the need to manage that stress with drugs). In fact, drivers who are paid on a deadline rate are two to three times more likely than those paid on a salary or time basis to take stimulants to extend their drive times.

Other factors that contribute to stimulant use, other than fatigue and pay concerns, include:

  • Age. Younger drivers are more prone than seasoned drivers to take drugs to stay alert and focused.
  • Run length. The longer the trip, the more likely the driver will turn to chemical stimulation.
  • Time of day. Truckers who spend most of their drive time at night tend to use stimulants to break up the monotony of the drive, as well as keep them focused in the dark.
  • Predisposition for alcohol and other drugs. Drivers who drink a lot of alcohol or use recreational drugs are more willing to accept the need to use stimulants than those who are sober.
  • Access. An occupational and environmental medicine study published in the British Medical Journal found that 85% of polled drivers concur that methamphetamines are easily obtainable at truck stops. These drivers further admitted that code names are used on CB radios to communicate where drivers can find certain drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, and uppers. A typical code may be as simple as “Looking for an ice cold coke.” (cocaine) or “Shout out to MJ. Where are you?” (marijuana).

The Downside of Uppers: Risks and Health Hazards

Of course, stimulants—both prescription medications and illegal street drugs—distort perception, cognition, and reaction times, making the drug-impaired driver a threat to himself and to everyone else on the road. This being said, many drivers feel that stimulant drugs are no worse than caffeine; indeed, studies have even shown that certain drugs can increase focus and decrease fatigue.

However, a lack of concentration isn’t the only dangerous concern for drivers. It’s true that many truck accidents occur as a result of drivers failing to pay attention, but drivers who take stimulants can also cause serious repercussions to themselves and others. These risks include:

  • Increased but misplaced driving confidence. Research shows that stimulants create a false sense of security in users, prompting them to take more risks. Those high on stimulants are prone to speed, to ignore potential hazards, and to refuse to use turn signals.
  • Health concerns. Stimulant drugs can easily mask fatal levels of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. They can also increase pulse rate and blood pressure to dangerous levels. Regular use of these drugs can affect long-term brain function and cause irreversible strain on the heart. Considering how truckers are already at risk for severe health problems, the added hazards presented by drug use can severely affect their driving abilities and put them at risk for heart attacks, strokes, seizures, and fainting episodes.
  • Sustaining the myth that drivers can handle long trips in short timeframes. When a driver decides to use stimulants to violate the hours-of-service regulations, he may meet his deadline…but at what cost? He showed his employer that he can physically (although not safely) travel so many miles in a limited time. Consequently, he set new performance expectations for his fellow drivers. Because of his actions, the truck company will demand that drivers handle longer trips in shorter timeframes. It doesn’t matter how the driver does it; the employer will set the deadline to maximize his profits regardless of safety or the driver’s health.

Raising Awareness to Decrease Truck Accident Risks

When you’re responsible for controlling an 80,000-pound truck, you can’t afford to be tired or otherwise impaired. Likewise, when driving near a 40-ton vehicle, you can’t afford for the driver to be anything but focused and alert. Therefore, you must not only understand and recognize the signs of fatigue but also know what to do and what not to do in the event that fatigue takes hold.

Help us spread the word on driver fatigue and the importance of getting rest, rather than popping pills to combat driver fatigue. Please, share this page on Facebook, Twitter, or Google Plus to educate others of the risks and health hazards of using drugs to reach delivery deadlines. No deadline is worth a life. Remember, knowledge never hurt anyone, but ignorance can kill.

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