Why Sleep is a Safety Issue
It doesn’t matter whether you are driving a forklift or the family mini-van; fatigue impairs your ability to safely operate vehicles and machinery. This is the message from the National Transportation Safety Board who has investigated accidents of all kinds for more than 40 years.
Insufficient sleep is a problem that touches every area of our society and the fatigue it causes needs to be a public health concern in every city and every state. Most people do not realize that research has shown that being awake for 18 hours caused impairment similar to that of someone with a blood alcohol concentration of .05 and 24 hours without sleep caused impairment similar to that of a BAC of .10. In most states, the legal limit for driving is .08. It is clear that drowsy driving and operator fatigue needs to be treated as seriously as driving under the influence if we are going to make our roads, skies and seas safer.
When it comes to improving transportation safety, there are some measures in place aimed at ensuring the operators of commercial vehicles like long-haul truck drivers, airline pilots, and boat captains have schedules that allow for them to obtain adequate sleep. However, having the time to get enough sleep does not always equate to getting a full night of quality sleep which can put lives at risk.
Why isn’t Drowsy Driving and Operator Fatigue Taken More Seriously?
There are at least three problems with monitoring, mandating, and legislating drowsy driving and operator fatigue. The first is a logistical problem. Unlike drunk driving which can be confirmed with a breath or blood test, there isn’t any way to test someone to see how tired they are or how much sleep they got. It would be impossible to enforce any law mandating that a person gets a certain amount of sleep before driving or flying because there is no way to confirm or test their declaration.
The second problem relates to the fact that not everyone needs the same amount of sleep. While sleep experts like the National Sleep Foundation recommend that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night, our individual sleep needs are different. While some people may be perfectly safe to drive with 7 hours of sleep other may require 10 to be safe. Without any consistency there is no way to set a mandatory minimum that works across the population or to measure it if we did.
The third problem is a societal problem and this is where we can all make a difference. Unfortunately, despite all the evidence supporting the importance of adequate sleep to our health and safety, our society continues to de-prioritize it. In many cases, those who seem to function well on little sleep are seen as heroes or envied for their ability to do so. We all seem to buy into the idea that skipping sleep is acceptable in almost any circumstance which is quite tragic when you consider the short and long term ramifications of not getting the sleep your body needs. Until we start treating sleep as a foundational part of protecting out health and wellbeing, it is going to be difficult to make our roads, skies, and even factories safer places to be.