On the Road

Are High Fuel Prices Killing Drivers?

February 26, 2014

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Drivers often have no say in where they stop for fuel ... and food.
Drivers often have no say in where they stop for fuel ... and food.

I can't help but notice a disconnect between the recent push on driver wellness at the fleet level and the constraints some fleets' fuel buying strategies place on drivers. On one hand, fleets are urging and encouraging drivers to eat well and participate in some physical activity, while they insist on buying fuel at the lowest priced outlets, which seldom include choices for healthy eating or the facilities to get that much-needed exercise.

That forces drivers to make a second stop at a full-service facility where sit-down restaurants offer substantial menus.

As anyone will tell you, getting off an Interstate and into a truckstop is a 30-minute proposition at best, and that's just in and out, like a bathroom break. The same applies to a fuel stop, plus the time it takes to fuel -- at least 15 minutes in most cases. So now, a fuel stop and a lunch break can stretch into an hour or better, or maybe even 90 minutes if the driver fuels at one place and eats elsewhere.

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Of course, when time is of the essence, then a slice of pizza, a burger or submarine sandwich are just the trick, right? And besides, it's only one meal a day, right? Even one hit of fast food can have a serious impact on a driver's health, attitude and productivity.

According to a the folks at fitday.com, a health, fitness and nutrition website, junk food doesn't contain the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy. After scarfing down something quick, you may feel fatigued and lack the energy you need to complete daily tasks. "The high levels of sugar in junk food puts your metabolism under stress; when you eat refined sugar, your pancreas secretes high amounts of insulin to prevent a dangerous spike in blood sugar levels."

Where does that leave you afterward? "Because fast food and junk food don't contain adequate amounts of protein and good carbohydrates, your blood sugar levels will drop suddenly after eating, leaving you feeling grumpy, fatigued and craving sugar," says FitDay.

That describes a lot of the drivers I know.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released the results of a health study called 'Obesity Prevalence by Occupation in Washington State, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System," concluding truck drivers and workers in transportation and material moving, protective services, and cleaning and building services had the highest prevalence of obesity. Indeed.

Researchers observed more than 88,000 participants over a four-year period and found an overall level of obesity (body mass index of 30 or higher) in the general population of 24.6%. Among groups of workers in the study, health care workers (physicians, dentists, veterinarians, optometrists and health diagnosing practitioners) scored the best at just 11.6%. Truck drivers fared the worst, tipping the survey scales at 38.6%.

Interestingly, researchers also found a significant disparity in the intake of fruits and vegetables, and levels of leisure-time physical activity across occupation groups in the study. Again, truckers came out on the wrong end of the scale. Researchers noted, "On average, [between] 23.3% and 34.3% of Washington State adult workers met 'Healthy People 2010' recommended levels of fruit and vegetable consumption and levels of off-the-job physical activity."

Another interesting little tidbit from the study suggests the easy availability of fast food and junk food is likely to influence drivers' food choices.

"Occupations such as truck drivers and transportation and material movers do not conform to employment in a single fixed worksite and are likely influenced by the availability of food choices in the broader environment, such as fast food and convenience stores."

Heart Attack in a Bag

Drivers buy a lot of their fuel at such stores today, and are confronted by row upon row of junk food choices conveniently placed near the checkout lines. The restaurants are in the back, and since there are nearly no parking spaces at many of those fuel stops, drivers can't park and wait for a decent meal to be prepared. They grab something in a bag and dash out the door, often consuming their "meal" while driving.

There's enough artery-hardening grease in one of these to treat your average fifth wheel.
There's enough artery-hardening grease in one of these to treat your average fifth wheel.

That's where things start going downhill for drivers. Junk food contains large amounts of fat, which is partially responsible for weight gain. With the extra weight comes increased risk for serious chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis -- maybe even a heart attack. As well, high levels of dietary fat lead to poor cognitive performance, notes the FitDay website. "You'll feel tired and have trouble concentrating because your body might not be getting enough oxygen."

And it only gets worse ... Junk food often contains high levels of sodium, which can have a negative effect on kidney function, while high levels of trans fatty acids found in many of these types of foods can lead to fatty liver deposits, which, over time, can cause liver dysfunction and disease.

And then there's the threat of diabetes. "Over time, the high levels of sugar and simple carbohydrates in junk food can lead to type 2 diabetes," notres FitDay. "This occurs because eating too much sugar puts your metabolism under stress; when you eat a lot of refined white sugar and simple carbohydrates, your body has to pump up insulin production to prevent a dangerous spike in blood sugar levels.

"Because junk food doesn't contain the protein or complex carbohydrates that your body needs to maintain consistent blood sugar levels, your blood sugar levels will drop suddenly soon after eating. You'll crave sugar and likely end up eating more junk food," the website's authors note.

It soon becomes a revolving door, with an evil twist. The same junk food you begin to crave when the first sugar high wears off can also lead to mood swings and lower energy levels, which stymie your interest in the exercise you need to burn off those extra calories.

Those last few paragraphs read like a death sentence.

Systematic Challenges

There are many useful insights provided by the authors of CDC's obesity study. It's not enough to say that truckers are fat because they don't eat right. We know that. The why is the interesting part.

It's cultural, I think, and endemic. It's driven, I'm sorry to say, by the structure of the job and the expectations of lawmakers and industry.

Despite countless appeals from drivers for flexibility in the hours of service rules and the opportunity to stop the clock for meal breaks, FMCSA has ignored those sensible pleas and now wants to impose regulations on drivers (sleep apnea, diabetes, etc.) to eliminate the same problems the agency is at least partially responsible for creating.

The standard retort from FMCSA is that drivers always have time to stop, which is true, but those stops can come at quite a cost in terms in missed appointments, hours of service challenges and the frustrations of simply trying to park a truck these days. Sure, drivers can always stop, but in reality its quicker to gobble lunch down out in the right lane -- which could soon become an offense if the distracted driving people have their way.

Low prices entice carriers into the pumper outlets that often don't offer full-service, sit-down restaurants.
Low prices entice carriers into the pumper outlets that often don't offer full-service, sit-down restaurants.

Carriers contribute to drivers' nutritional problems by insisting on buying fuel at the cheapest outlets possible. Understandable in these days of four-dollar diesel fuel, but then to set delivery schedules without considering the need to stop elsewhere for a proper meal is a little hard to swallow. If the fuel stops are pre-ordained, a little consideration could be built in for the time required to sit down to some real food.

The good news here is that there are drivers out there who succeed in feeding themselves properly and getting the exercise they need -- a few super athletes among them.

When they talk about it, it sounds easy: proper diet, regular exercise, even time for some high-intensity training. I suspect these people are very good at time management and are highly focused on their goals. I also suspect they don't suffer from the sugar- and fat-induced, semi-comatose, just-ate-the-biggest-burger-ever-blues that keeps many other drivers from achieving their health goals.

That burger or pizza you just had for dinner may not only kill you in the long run, it's probably clouding your brain and making it harder to break the cycle and put the extra effort into eating properly.       

Comments

  1. 1. Denise G [ February 27, 2014 @ 04:52AM ]

    I am so happy to see this article. My boyfriend has been trucking for 30 years and now is on the verge of type 2 diabetes. I'm trying to alter his food choices; however, the trucking company he works for does not allow the extra time to sit and eat a good meal. Consequently, he is at the pizza/burger food chain. We have started packing a lunch bag, so that he can have some healthier food. More is needed to accommodate these older and younger driver's that are now out on the road. Would like to see more articles about this from the Trucking Companies' point of view! Thank you

  2. 2. GREG FOREMAN [ February 27, 2014 @ 07:09AM ]

    This article brings to my mind an occasion when I purchased a "veggie wrap"--thinking "veggie" had to be safer than those ole dirty, fat infected, greasy burgers or fried whatever. Feeling particularly health conscious that morning, I purchased two wraps. Upon returning to the truck, opening the wraps, then reading the ingredients, I discovered one serving, defined as one wrap, contained 3400 grams of sodium---3400 grams!!!!!. The amount of sodium contained in one "veggie wrap" exceeded the entire recommended daily consumption of sodium. From that point on, I read all the ingredients in all of my "ready to eat" food purchases. I'm not blaming the truck stop. I place the blame on the food preparers and the food service industry. The only way the food industry will improve the quality and healthful nature of the food served the public is by the public demanding such and simply not purchasing the "trash" supplied for sale.

  3. 3. Cw [ February 27, 2014 @ 10:22AM ]

    Spot-on and guilty. We should hear more about the driver average mortality of 62. It makes retirement planning easy!
    In the above scenario, it's not mentioned that buying discount fuel at one place and seeking the Knife and Fork restaurant at another isn't a winning strategy either. Truckstop restaurants have declined in quality in the last few decades. Less business has lowered the quality of these restaurants. Look at any buffet at a major chain restaurant and see if you can identify some of the entrees. Major label restaurants taking over at the hook are not much healthier than the crap being shoveled out at the fuel desk.
    When I was last dwelling in the sleeper of a truck, I did my best to prepare my own food in my 5x8 box behind the driver seat. If it weren't for access to Wally mart, that too would have been difficult to maintain. Bagged salad and canned veggies were in the diet plan then.
    Rant mode: off

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Author Bio

Jim Park

Equipment Editor

Truck journalist 13 years, commercial driver 20 years. Joined us in 2007. Specializes in technical/equipment material (including Tire Report), brings real-world perspective to test drives.

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