Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Asleep at the Wheel

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Asleep at the Wheel

Article excerpt

Employees who work night shifts, long hours or more than one job run an increased risk of being in a sleep-induced crash. Training these workers to prevent driver fatigue can help keep them out of jeopardy

To tell you the truth, I thought I was fine." This is what 29-year-old Jamie Summerlin told police and researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Highway Safety Research Center after she dozed off behind the wheel of her car, sending it veering across the median of the road and smashing into a parked truck on the opposite side of the street.

Summerlin, a third-shift worker at a plastic manufacturing company in Harrisburg, N.C., was making her daily 27-mile commute home. She recalls feeling sleepy prior to the crash and pulling into a restaurant parking lot where she slept for a few minutes before deciding she felt clear-headed enough to drive home.

"I went about three blocks, turned right, and I can't tell you anything from there. That's when I had the wreck," she told researchers.

At the time of the accident, Summerlin was working several extra hours per week and attributes working third shift as the primary cause of her exhaustion. "It doesn't matter how much sleep you get on third shift, you're still sleepy and exhausted. Your body's not used to something like that, and it just can't get used to it."

Summerlin, who now works first shift, told researchers her crash experience often makes her wonder about the physical condition of other drivers on the road. "Now whenever I'm going to work, I wonder who is getting off work and may be in the same condition I was in that morning. It's something to think about."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) agrees. Experts believe driver fatigue ranks higher than driver misbehavior, inattention and even poor judgment as the most common cause of human error behind the wheel. Driving too fast, running off the road or out of the lane of traffic, and failing to yield the right-of-way are the top three crash-related factors cited by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Approximately 100,000 police-reported crashes involve drowsiness or fatigue as a principal causal factor each year. At least 71,000 people are injured in those crashes, costing U.S. consumers $12.5 billion annually.

Studies consistently correlate driver alertness and performance. Driver fatigue has particularly devastating consequences because of its ability to impair drivers from making sound, split-second and, often, life-saving decisions - in most cases before they even have a chance to realize it.

One-fourth of the drivers involved in sleep-related crashes interviewed as part of a UNC study released in March said they had driven drowsy more than 10 times in the past year, and more than half reported not feeling even moderately drowsy before they crashed, according to Jean Wilkins, project co-investigator at the UNC School of Medicine.

"Driving while sleepy is not a new experience for many drivers. Many of them think that drowsy driving is no big deal. They think they can handle it, that they can force themselves to stay awake. But this just isn't true," Wilkins said. "Many of us would never think about driving drunk, but by driving when we're sleep-deprived, we put ourselves and others at risk of a crash that is as severe as, or more severe than, an alcohol-related crash."

In fact, another study released in May by researchers at the Stanford University Medical Center and the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis indicates that sleep, or lack there of, impacts reaction time and driving performance as much as alcohol, making sleep-deprived drivers one of the biggest hazards on the highways.

"This study demonstrates that driving while sleepy is at least as dangerous as, if not more dangerous than, driving while intoxicated," said Nelson Powell, MD, co-director of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Center, located in Stanford, Calif. …

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