Alert on the Road with Caffeine

Caffeine consumption may decrease crash risk among commercial truck drivers

(RxWiki News) Falling asleep behind the wheel is scary. For commercial truck drivers, the long hours spent on the road can make it hard to stay alert.

But truck drivers who consumed caffeine to stay awake decreased their chances of crashing by more than 60 percent, according to a new study.

With coffee, tea, energy drinks and caffeine pills, the findings showed that drivers stayed safer as they drove across the country.

"Keep coffee handy while on the road."

Lisa Sharwood, PhD, MPH, research scholar at the George Institute for Global Health, and colleagues investigated whether caffeine consumption affected the chance of crashing among commercial truck drivers.

The study included 530 long-distance commercial drivers in Australia who had been involved in a crash tended to by police between December 2008 and May 2011. Crash reports were sent weekly to the researchers, who invited drivers to take part in the study anonymously.

To compare results, researchers also looked at 517 drivers who had not been involved in a crash within the last year. These drivers were slightly older and had more driving experience than those who were involved in crashes.

The drivers were asked if they had any difficulty staying awake while driving and how often the difficulties occurred. Drivers' age, sleeping patterns, health disorders and symptoms of sleep disorders were taken into account.

Researchers also tracked the distance drivers covered on their routes and the number of breaks they took, hours they slept and their night driving schedules.

About 43 percent of the drivers reported consuming some kind of caffeinated substance, such as coffee, tea, energy drinks or caffeine tablets to stay awake.

Illegal caffeinated stimulants, including speed (amphetamine), ecstasy (MDMA) and cocaine were consumed by 3 percent of the drivers in order to stay awake.

Drivers who consumed caffeinated substances to stay awake were 63 percent less likely to crash compared to drivers who did not consume any caffeine.

About a third of the drivers in the study did not stop for a nap when tired. Researchers said napping might not be favorable compared to other strategies for managing sleepiness.

"While it is clear that taking breaks is a vital fatigue management strategy for long distance drivers, it is possible that the different activities undertaken during a break would contribute differently to a driver’s fatigue or alertness level," researchers wrote in their report.

"The varying extent to which activities such as taking a nap, drinking a cup of coffee, or going for a short walk contribute to subsequent vigilance behind the wheel are not well understood and are therefore recommended for further study."

Researchers did not note the time, frequency and quantity of caffeine consumption among the drivers, nor did researchers determine whether there were other reasons for consuming caffeine.

The Australian Research Council, the Australian Government Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Diagnose IT, the National Transport Commission, Queensland Transport, the Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales and Main Roads in Western Australia funded the study. The authors did not report any conflicts of interest.

The study was published March 19 in the journal BMJ.

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Review Date: 
March 19, 2013