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Spring forward – and fall back on transportation safety

This Sunday, we turn our clocks ahead and collectively as a nation each lose an hour of sleep. In this one night, we'll generate a 300 million-hour national sleep debt and accumulate over a billion hours of lost sleep during the adjustment to daylight savings time. And as a consequence, on the Monday following the time change, there will be a 17 percent increase in roadway accidents.

In transportation, sleep loss kills, injures, and costs billions of dollars.

National Sleep Awareness Week, March 5 through 11, highlights the tragedies that can result from fatigue and operating vehicles. Poor judgment, lack of situational awareness, and slowed responses are just some of the consequences of not getting enough sleep.

In 2009, five people were killed when their tired bus driver operating a 34-passenger vacation charter failed to negotiate a curve on Highway 101 in Monterey County. Some of the passengers noticed his drowsiness during the journey, but no one said anything.

The hour we lose when clocks are set forward each spring offers our already sleep-deprived country a mere glimpse into the bigger picture of operating vehicles while fatigued. Every year, an estimated one million highway crashes are likely fatigue-related, with loss of life and injuries in the thousands.

Last week, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) released its annual Sleep in America® Poll and the results are staggering. When it comes to the people America relies on to transport us safely, a significant number say that sleepiness has caused safety problems on the job. One in five pilots admits that they've made a serious error while flying. One in six train operators and truck drivers say that they have had a “near miss” due to sleepiness.

These NSF findings are consistent with decades of investigations performed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  The NTSB has identified fatigue in accidents across all modes of transportation and has made about 200 safety recommendations on fatigue. For this reason, fatigue has been on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements for 22 years. But are we any safer?

The societal wakeup call is just beginning to be answered. For example, less than two months ago, new federal regulations for pilots and commercial truck drivers were issued. While representing the most significant changes in more than 70 years, the rules in these two areas do not go far enough.

The sad fact is that for all the information we have on the perils of fatigue, America still accepts - even glamorizes - pushing the sleep envelope. But when it comes to operating any kind of vehicle, fatigue can be deadly and reducing these risks is everyone’s responsibility: companies, the government, individual operators, and travel consumers.

This year when we all spring forward, lose an hour in some other part of your life: Get the sleep you need and then maintain that sleep amount throughout the year. Your life and lives around you depend on it.

The Hon. Mark R. Rosekind, '77, PhD, is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an internationally recognized expert in the field of sleep and fatigue science.

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