By Jana Price
My brother is a district sales manager who sells manufacturing supplies to companies across Wisconsin. He spends about 75 percent of his work time in his car, traveling on sales calls throughout the state, often driving 5 hours for a 2-hour sales visit before driving back home. Because he drives a company car, his employer pays for his insurance and gas. When I asked him what types of driving safety training or policies his company has, he told me that the driving safety policy is clear: No texting or hand-held phone use while driving, and always wear seat belts.
“But what about drowsy driving?” I asked him. No policies, no training, even though he spends as much time on the road as many interstate truck drivers.
Drowsy driving is a serious problem. According to a study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, one in five fatal crashes involves a drowsy driver. As an accident investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board, I have spent a good part of my career investigating crashes that could have been prevented if drivers made better choices to stay alert, and if employers had proactive strategies to prevent drowsy driving. All of us need sleep, and none of us—even the most experienced drivers—is immune to the consequences of getting behind the wheel while drowsy. In the blink of an eye, your car can drift off the road, risking your life and the lives of those around you.
This week is Drive Safely Work Week, sponsored by the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety, and one of this year’s central themes is the importance of sleep to ensure that employees stay healthy and safe. To prevent drowsy driving and increase safety, companies can establish fatigue management programs, which can include setting maximum work times and minimum rest hours to ensure that workers have sufficient time for sleep, educating workers about the importance of sleep for health and safety, providing screening and treatment for sleep disorders, and encouraging drivers to report sleep, fatigue, or workload problems.
Even if your company doesn’t have a fatigue management program, there are steps you can take to stay safe and alert while driving. Aim for 8 hours of sleep every night; avoid driving during early morning hours when the brain is wired for sleep; get checked for sleep disorders, especially if you are drowsy during waking hours; and if you feel drowsy while driving, get off the road and stay safe.
I am thankful that my brother’s company has paid for hotel rooms the handful of times he felt he was too tired to drive home. But employers and workers can—and must—do more to ensure that drivers are alert and safe for every trip.
Jana Price, PhD, is a Senior Human Performance Investigator in the NTSB Office of Highway Safety.