Sleep Deprivation Leads to Disasters

Health Day News today brought us some health tips about how to stay awake behind the wheel. Excellent advice. Dozing while driving is becoming a growing problem.

by Florence Cardinal Patient Expert

Health Day News brought us some health tips about how to stay awake behind the wheel. Excellent advice. Dozing while driving is becoming a growing problem. Let's tale a look at some of the statisitics.

Asleep at the Wheel

Every day, newspapers all over America report automobile accidents caused by drowsy drivers. Most involve fatalities; all involve injuries and high costs to the drivers and to others.

The National Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 crashes each year are the results of sleepy drivers. These crashes cause 1550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and $12.5 billion in property loss and diminished activity. The scary part is that the number of such crashes may be much higher, perhaps even double.

Why aren't more of these accidents reported? Many times police do not recognize the signs of drowsy driving and there are no codes to follow. Therefore, many such accidents are attributed to other causes.

While anyone can experience occasional bouts with drowsy driving, the people most at risk are young men between the ages of 16 and 29, people who suffer from untreated or undiagnosed sleep disorders, the elderly, shift workers, and drivers who spend many hours behind the wheel without a break. This includes commercial drivers.

When driving, watch for signs you are becoming sleepy, such as yawning, lack of concentration or trouble keeping your eyes open. If you notice any of these signs or anything else that may indicate you are not driving with full mental capacity, pull over and take a break. Find a place to catch a little sleep and don't continue until you feel refreshed and awake.

But the danger extends to more than cars. Take a look at these possible cases.

If You Doze, Don't Drive

You're driving along the highway. Suddenly the car coming towards you swerves into your path. You hit the horn. The oncoming car swerves back into its own lane, overcompensates, and slams into the ditch. Luckily, the driver isn't hurt.

"I fell asleep," he explains sheepishly. An event that could have resulted in a tragic and fatal accident. An event that has done so many times. The driver, for whatever reason -- too many hours behind the wheel, a sleep disorder, highway hypnosis -- falls asleep, swerves into the wrong lane and slams into oncoming traffic.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Lets take a look at other possible scenarios.

Scenario 1

Instead of a car, the driver is at the wheel of an eighteen-wheeler hauling a load of hazardous waste. He's on the final leg of a long haul and has had no sleep for eighteen hours. He falls asleep, loses control, and the truck jackknifes across the highway, spewing out the hazardous contents. The accident occurs on the outskirts of a major city.

Scenario 2

Instead of a truck, the driver is an engineer on a freight train, hauling freight across country. He has had insufficient rest. He falls asleep and the train hurtles across country with no one in control. A major rail accident just waiting to happen.

Scenario 3

Instead of a train, the napper is in control of an oil tanker loaded with petroleum. The ship goes aground, spewing its cargo into the ocean.

Scenario 4

Jumbo jets today carry hundreds of passengers. Those passengers put their lives in the hands of the men who fly the plane. Just how secure would those passengers feel if they knew the pilot was asleep?

This happened and was reported in the news. The article explained: "Pilot says he fell asleep during one of his flights." It gets worse. The captain was also asleep. The pilot estimates that the naps lasted about thirty minutes. Think of it. For thirty minutes, no one was flying that plane The reason? An unscheduled flight and inadequate sleep.

Sleep deprivation has led to major disasters: From Nuclear Meltdowns to Oil Spillhree Mile Island - March 28, 1979

The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island occurred between midnight and three A.M. when night workers tend to be the drowsiest and was caused by a serious lack of judgment. A cooling malfunction caused a meltdown that destroyed the #2 reactor. Although some radioactive gas was released, luckily, no injuries or health problems ensued.

Gas Leak in Bhopal, India - December 3, 1984

Again, an accident in the early hours of the morning and again caused by inattentive workers who failed to respond to the danger. A storage tank overheated releasing deadly MIC gas. As many as 600,000 people were injured and 15,000 or more have died. Many more are still suffering from the after effects and traces of the contamination are still present.

Space Shuttle Challenger - January 28, 1986

The managers who authorized the launch prior to the Challenger explosion in 1986 had had little sleep the night before. The mission, beset by problems from the start, had kept crews working around the clock to iron out problems. According to Nick Greene, About Guide to Space and Astronomy, "The Challenger finally lifted off at 11:38:00 a.m. EST. Seventy three seconds into the mission, the Challenger exploded, killing the entire crew."

Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster - April 25, 1986

Another meltdown disaster, this time in the Ukraine and again linked to sleepiness. A shutdown and test of reactor #4 was to take place at 1 A.M. Things went awry when several safety features were turned off, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

When the Exxon Valdez went aground off Alaska, first reports said the accident was caused by a drunken captain. Later investigation, however, suggested that the captain had turned over command to his first mate who was extremely sleep deprived. He had slept only six hours in the previous 48. The cleanup of the spill cost more than two billion dollars and the damage to the environment was tremendous.

Star Princess Cruise Ship Grounded - June 22, 1995

The Star Princess, traveling from Skagway to Juneau, Alaska, went aground in the early evening. No one was injured, but the cost of repairs and delay registered in the millions. According to the National Transportation Safety Board "The conclusion of the investigation conducted by the NTSB was that the probable cause of the grounding was the pilot's poor performance, which may have been exacerbated by chronic fatigue caused by sleep apnea."

Michigan Train Wreck - November 15, 2001

The collision between two Canadian National trains on tracks near Clarkston caused the death of two crewmen and spilled about 3000 gallons of diesel fuel. According to the New York Times, "A fatal train wreck near Clarkston last year was caused by the fatigue of two crewmen on a Canadian National freight train who were suffering from severe sleep apnea, a report by the National Transportation Safety Board has found. Obstructive sleep apnea had been diagnosed in the engineer, Allen Yash, and the conductor, Jesse Enriquez, but their conditions were not listed in company medical reports, investigators found."

It's time we realized the dangers of sleep deprivation. How long before a sleep deprived employee sets off an event that destroys more of our world? The clock is ticking. Make sure some of those hours ticking by are spent in much needed sleep.

Florence Cardinal
Meet Our Writer
Florence Cardinal

Florence wrote for HealthCentral as patient expert for Sleep Disorders.