Drowsy Driving While On the Job

When it comes to drowsy driving, almost everyone agrees it’s a problem, and yet many of us continue to do it. According to the numbers, more than half of us have been guilty at one time or another of drowsy driving. In a recent “Sleep in America” poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, 60 percent of drivers said they had driven while drowsy. According to the same study, 37 percent admitted they had actually fallen asleep while behind the wheel during the previous year.

In the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) white paper about drowsy driving, the agency stated that 29.4 percent of drivers who had driven when they were so fatigued that they could barely keep their eyes open had done so during the previous 30 days. The number who reported having done so more than once was one in five (19.8 percent).

Imagine someone who drives or travels for a living, or who works non-standard hours and sleeps when they can. Imagine how tired they might be, and how often they might drive while drowsy.

Driving While Drowsy Is Responsible For What Percentage of Fatal Collisions?

It’s estimated that 16.5 percent of all fatal crashes involve drowsy driving. Most years, this percentage would mean that roughly 6,000 people died because someone got behind the wheel while sleepy. These figures are general; we do not have statistics specific enough to count work-related fatalities due to drowsy driving. Tracking drowsy driving in general is difficult because we don’t have tests for it the way we do with drugs or alcohol. But we do know that vehicular crashes, both on and off the job, cost employers almost $50 billion during 2013, and that many of these crashes were probably due to fatigue.

Which Types of Workers Are at Risk?

You might be surprised to learn that more workers than you might suspect could be at risk for drowsy driving, and therefore a risk to you on the roads. Drivers who can be strongly affected by their work schedules are:

  • Public safety personnel. This category includes police officers, fire fighters, and EMS workers. All experience rotating shift work, stressful situations, and long hours. Some frequently work overtime or moonlight at second jobs. Not only that—in one study, around 40 percent of police tested positive for sleep apnea, which can make you vulnerable to inappropriate drowsiness and suddenly dropping off to sleep.
  • Health care workers. In this country, we have over 14 million people in health care. Many of them work rotating shifts and most work long hours. Medical interns and residents are the ones most likely to endure certain conditions, such as 80-hour workweeks and putting in over 16 hours straight, which lead directly to drowsy driving.
  • Commercial motor vehicle (CMV/truck) drivers. Again, there are long hours coupled with a stressful occupation. One study found that drowsy driving caused 20 percent of all crashes involving large trucks. CMV drivers often get only 5 to 6 hours of sleep every 24 hours while on the job. It’s estimated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) that around 13 percent of truck drivers are driving while fatigued. Truck drivers also, as a group, have a high rate of sleep apnea, with 28 percent of drivers suffering mild to serious cases.The New Jersey Turnpike crash in which comedian Tracy Morgan was seriously injured and James McNair was killed was caused by a fatigued driver who had gone 28 hours without sleep.
  • Shift workers in general. We’ve already pointed out public safety workers and health care workers as examples of shift workers. But at least 15 percent of our workforce does shift work—factory workers, retail workers, restaurant and hospitality workers, as well as those in grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, call centers, security work, prison work, and military personnel. All of these careers ask people to be on duty around the clock. That’s many millions of folks on the road who haven’t had enough sleep.
  • Those who frequently travel for business. Those who travel routinely for business can be “on the road” for long hours because of airline delays, and they often must cross time zones repeatedly. Add in the fact that those who fly for their job must get behind the wheel of an unfamiliar rental car when they are exhausted and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster.

What Can Be Done?

A number of agencies are working to educate employers and workers about the dangers of drowsy driving, such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Safety Council (NSC). Additionally, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has been researching the incidence of obstructive sleep apnea among railway workers and truck drivers, as well as educating them.

If you travel or drive for a living, or work shifts, please keep the warning signs of drowsiness in mind:

  • Having trouble focusing your eyes, blinking often, or rubbing your eyes
  • Yawning frequently
  • Disorientation, incoherent thoughts, and missing exits or turns
  • Running over rumble strips, or suddenly finding yourself drifting out of your lane or off the road
  • Not being able to keep your head up, or snapping it up abruptly.

Regardless of whether you are on the job or on vacation, pull over and rest if you exhibit the signs of drowsy driving. Take a break, including a short nap and coffee, or even stay the night somewhere if you believe you are in danger of crashing.