On Monday, just a week after the NTSB issued 16 safety recommendations resulting from a horrific crash in New York City caused by a severely fatigued motorcoach driver, I provided a keynote address at the Associated Professional Sleep Societies annual conference in Boston. It was a unique and direct opportunity to challenge professionals in the field of sleep science and medicine at the largest gathering of its kind. In my remarks, From Bench to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: How Sleep Science Can Enhance Transportation Safety, I discussed the ways in which sleep science has already increased transportation safety but must do even more amid the risks posed by fatigue. We all play a role in eliminating fatigue in transportation, from the community to the organization to the individual. It is critical that sleep professionals take a lead role in fostering the science, research, and policies necessary to effect positive change at every level.
Fifteen people died and 17 were injured in the Bronx last year when their bus veered off the roadway, and overturned before striking a signpost. The impact tore the roof from most of the vehicle in one of the worst accidents of its kind that the NTSB has ever investigated. When you take a closer look at the driver’s schedule, his opportunities for sleep in the 72 hours prior to the crash were limited to short periods, only three hours just before the crash, resulting in acute sleep loss that proved deadly. A big part of this tragedy is that it was so preventable and sleep science is central to changing America’s accepted culture of sleeplessness.
Sleep science has provided a critical foundation for the NTSB’s 200 safety recommendations on fatigue and for life-saving regulatory changes and operational practices in transportation. The societal wakeup call is just beginning to be answered. Just over five months ago, the Federal Aviation Administration issued new hours of service rules for pilots and the Federal Motor Carrier Administration issued new rules for commercial truck drivers. While representing the most significant changes in 70 years and incorporating many science-based elements, the aviation regulations do not cover all pilots and those for trucks do not address sleep disorders.
This nation needs much more from the world of sleep science and I called sleep professionals to action on three fronts. First, we need more operationally relevant research that provides the scientific basis to change further the laws, policies, and practices affecting transportation safety. Second, this has to be translated effectively and communicated so that it is understood and acted on by all. Lastly, change begins with the individual. Sleep professionals must set an example and a standard for everyone that demonstrates the highest level of responsibility in the personal behavior of sleep practices. But, you do not have to be a sleep professional to make transportation safer. Change begins with everyone. Respect sleep, get your 8 hours, and don’t think you are safe when sleep deprived. With all of these ingredients, we can go a long way toward preventing what happened in the Bronx, and in so many other unnecessary and preventable accidents.
Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.