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Study: A Sleep-Deprived Person Behind The Wheel Or In The Cockpit Is Just As Dangerous As A Drunken Driver

A comprehensive investigation into the effect that fatigue has on the ability to safely operate vehicles within the nations four major modes of transportation has revealed some daunting information about just how powerful fatigue is - and how lightly the responsible federal agencies seem to regard it.

The Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative journalism organization, aided by the college journalism coalition News 21, conducted extensive analysis and interviewed several government officials regarding emerging data that shows fatigued drivers and pilots are just as dangerous, sometimes more so, than those who operate while intoxicated. The study, titled "Traveling Dangerously In America," reveals a staggering amount of data pointing to how serious a threat fatigued drivers, pilots and conductors pose to the passengers they are responsible for, and highlights the many efforts and attempts that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has made for decades trying to curb it.  

The full text is a must-read and can be located here, but listed below are examples of the facts and data revealed by News 21 that are both surprising and disheartening:

  • Over the past four decades, more than 320 fatigue-related accidents and incidents have taken nearly 750 lives in airplane crashes alone.
  • The NTSB has issued 138 fatigue-related safety recommendations since 1967. Only 68 have been implemented.
  • A regulation that pilots can fly no more than 1,000 hours in a single year hasn't changed since 1935.
  • The NTSB does not track fatigue-related highway accidents on a regular basis. But in 1993, the board commissioned a study expecting to learn about the effects of drugs and alcohol on trucking accidents. Investigators studied all heavy-trucking accidents that year and made an unexpected discovery: Fatigue turned out to be the bigger problem. The study found 3,311 heavy truck accidents killed 3,783 people that year, and between 30 percent and 40 percent of those accidents were fatigue-related.
  • The NTSB has issued 34 recommendations regarding fatigue on the nation's roads. Only 17 have been followed.
  • Pilots, controllers and flight crews who report safety problems through an anonymous NASA database frequently mention fatigue as a problem. Since NASA added a fatigue category in June 2009 there have been more than 200 reports from flight crew members concerned about fatigue affecting work performance and safety.
  • Since 1972, the NTSB has offered 37 recommendations to address pilot fatigue; only 12 have been implemented.
  • A 2001 report published by the General Accountability Office (GAO) detailed the FAA's inefficient safety-based rule-making: the report stated that between 1995 and 2000 the FAA completed 29 major rules, each averaging about 2.5 years, but six rules took 10 years or more to complete.
  • The effects of fatigue mirror those of alcohol, as proven in scientific studies around the world. After being awake for as little as 24 hours, a person's workplace performance can be equivalent to that of someone with a blood-alcohol content of 0.10 percent, equal to or greater than the legal intoxication limit in all 50 states.

The News 21 report, published in several informative installments including "The Science of Sleep" and "Napping in the Cockpit" makes reference to several, high-profile transportation disasters where fatigue was determined to have played a role, including Delta Connection/Comair Flight 5191 and Continental Connection/Colgan Air Flight 3407. The report investigates additional transportation safety concerns beyond fatigue, addressing aviation, highways, railways and waterways independently, and offers an in-depth look at the response (or lack thereof) taken by the federal agencies responsible for each.

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