Could That Cuppa Joe Save Your Life?

April 2, 2013

While truckers have long known the benefits of chugging down a cuppa joe to prevent drowsiness at the wheel, researchers in Australia recently released a study that they say proves that imbibing in caffeinated beverages can significantly reduce a long-distance truck driver's accident risk. In a real-world case study, compared to truckers who did not use caffeinated products, drivers who said they consumed caffeinated substances for the purpose of staying awake had a 63% reduced likelihood of crashing.

Lisa Sharwood, PhD, of the University of Sydney in Australia, and colleagues in BMJ enrolled 530 long-haul truck drivers who had an accident between December 2008 and May 2011 in two Australian states. For comparison purposes, they enrolled 517 control drivers who had not had an accident in the previous 12 months. In face-to-face interviews, participants were asked about their use of substances containing caffeine such as coffee, soft drinks, energy drinks, tea and caffeine tablets, as well as such things as health disorders, sleep patterns, symptoms of sleep disorders, distances driven, hours of sleep, breaks while on the road, and night driving schedules. "We explored the use of caffeinated substances among a large population of long distance drivers of commercial vehicles and investigated the effect of use of legal stimulants in relation to the risk of crashing." Sharwood said. "In a large population of long distance commercial vehicle drivers, the consumption of caffeinated substances for the purpose of staying awake while driving was found to significantly protect against crashing." "These findings suggest that the consumption of legal stimulants such as caffeine could be of value within the context of a multi-faceted strategy to manage fatigue to reduce the propensity for crashes among long distance commercial drivers," she added. Before they start gulping down caffeine, however, truckers should also be alert to problems associated with caffeine consumption. "The effectiveness of caffeine for enhancing alertness in the performance of monotonous tasks has previously been shown in laboratory and driving simulator settings," Sharwood noted. "When used in excess, however, caffeine can also affect the quantity and quality of sleep, as sleep latency is prolonged and slow wave sleep is reduced." For most healthy adults, moderate doses of caffeine 200 to 300 milligrams (mg), or about two to four cups of brewed coffee a day aren't harmful, according to the Mayo Clinic. Medical professionals say that although moderate caffeine intake isn't likely to cause harm, too much can lead to some unpleasant side effects. Heavy daily caffeine use more than 500 to 600 mg a day may cause:

  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Stomach upset
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Muscle tremors

And some circumstances may warrant limiting or even ending your caffeine routine, doctors warn.

If you suffer from insomnia or sleep apnea, use of caffeine as a stimulant is a bad idea. Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night but caffeine can interfere with sleep patterns. Chronically losing sleep results in sleep deprivation. Sleep loss is cumulative, and even small nightly decreases can add up and disturb daytime alertness and performance. "Using caffeine to mask sleep deprivation can create an unwelcome cycle," the Mayo Clinic warns. "For example, you drink caffeinated beverages because you have trouble staying awake during the day. But the caffeine keeps you from falling asleep at night, shortening the length of time you sleep." Caffeine can also cause dramatic increases in blood pressure in some people, according to the Mayo Clinic's Dr. Sheldon G. Sheps. "Some people who regularly drink caffeinated beverages have a higher average blood pressure than do those who drink none. Others who regularly drink caffeinated beverages develop a tolerance to it," he said. "As a result, caffeine doesn't have a long-term effect on their blood pressure. It seems that caffeine has a stronger blood pressure increasing effect in people who are older than 70 or who are overweight." To see if caffeine might be raising your blood pressure, he suggests you check your blood pressure within 30 to 60 minutes of drinking a cup of coffee or another caffeinated beverage. "If your blood pressure increases by five to 10 points, you may be sensitive to the blood pressure raising effects of caffeine. If you plan to cut back on caffeine, do so gradually over several days to a week to avoid withdrawal headaches."

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