According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowsy driving is not just a major problem in the United States, it is a public health crisis. “Drowsy driving is the dangerous combination of driving and sleepiness or fatigue. This usually happens when a driver has not slept enough, but it can also happen because of untreated sleep disorders, medications, drinking alcohol, or shift work.”

As the country re-enters the workplace and re-incorporates a daily commute into its routine, and for workers who travel long distances as part of their employment, it is important to revisit the topic of sleep and occupational safety.

The Dangers of Drowsy Driving

The National Safety Council (NSC) notes that about 1 in 25 adult drivers report having fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days, and many more admit to driving when they were sleep-deprived. What drivers may not realize is how much drowsy driving puts themselves – and others – at risk. In fact, in recent years an estimated 6,400 people died annually in crashes involving drowsy driving, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that drowsy-driving crashes approach nearly 100,000 each year per its most recent census.

Work needs and requirements may cause us to override those natural sleep patterns, often resulting in dramatic consequences on safety and productivity. The following list by the NSC illustrates a few facts for employers:

  • Safety performance decreases as employees become tired
  • Over 60% of night shift workers complain about sleep loss
  • Fatigued worker productivity costs employers $1,200 to $3,100 per employee annually
  • Employees on rotating shifts are particularly vulnerable because they cannot adapt their “body clocks” to an alternative sleep pattern

The NSC, NHTSA, and other traffic safety agencies such as the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) find that the drivers most at risk are commercial drivers (such as long-haul drivers, tow truck drivers, and bus drivers), graveyard shift workers, and employees on rotating or long shifts as well as drivers under the age of 25. In fact, studies show that driving drowsy is similar — in terms of slowed response time and judgment errors — to driving intoxicated, with 24 hours without sleep being roughly equivalent to having a blood alcohol content of .10%.

Some agencies have taken steps to limit drowsy driving, as well as the amount of hours employees can work. For example, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration limits property-carrying drivers to a maximum of 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off duty, and requires at least a 40-minute break every 8 hours. Passenger-carrying drivers have a stricter maximum of 10 hours after 8 consecutive hours of duty. These rules also take into consideration whether there are adverse driving conditions, and whether the driver has a sleeping berth.

Seyfarth has previously blogged on this topic as well. See DOT Publishes Proposed Changes to Hours of Service Regulations for Commercial Motor Vehicle Drivers, National Safety Council Congress Session on Driving Safety – The Missing Link in Your Company Safety and Health Management Systems, Asleep at the Wheel: Trucking Company’s Sleep Apnea Policy and Procedures Reviewed by Federal Courts, and DOT Proposes Rulemaking on “Safety Sensitive Positions” in Highway and Rail Transportation.

What Employers Can Do

Besides adhering to Federal and state guidelines limiting the hours employees can work, there are a few steps which employers can implement to help curb drowsy driving and ensure employees are rested and driving safe behind the wheel. For workers who must drive as part of their job, OSHA recommends setting up a Safe Driving Program to keep employees safe on the road that includes formulating written policies and procures, driver agreements including seatbelt requirements and regular vehicle maintenance and inspection, and establishing regular driver training and communication. For all drivers, NIOSH recommends using a fatigue risk management system as well as setting policies for maximum numbers of overtime hours and consecutive shifts.

Employer Takeaway

Employee behavior on public roadways can have a big impact in terms of employee safety, public safety, and negative publicity for the employer. Employers should do an analysis of risks of drowsy driving and develop appropriate programs and training to develop a strong safety culture. Doing so will help employees stay awake, alert, and safe on the roads.