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The truck accident that critically wounded comedian Tracy Morgan and killed fellow comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair has little bright side except that it has put a much-needed spotlight on the dangers of driving while fatigued.
In the Morgan accident, a truck driver for Wal-Mart swerved and plowed into Morgan’s limo bus, allegedly in a belated reaction to slow traffic ahead. A criminal complaint filed against the driver alleges that his delayed reaction and the ensuing crash occurred because he had not slept for more than 24 hours. Operating a motor vehicle with so little sleep is a crime in New Jersey, where the accident took place.
While the driver has pled not guilty to the charges, the fact remains that sleep deprivation is a common cause of motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that about 100,000 car crashes each year are caused by drowsy driving, resulting in approximately 40,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths. And it’s believed that these numbers are underreported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 15 to 33 percent of all fatal crashes involve drowsy driving.
A poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 60 percent of Americans have driven while feeling sleepy and 37 percent admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel. But most people don’t realize that you can fall asleep at the wheel and never know it. When you’re extremely tired the brain will sneak in “microsleeps”—fleeting naps that usually last two or three seconds, but sometimes last up to eight seconds. If you experience a microsleep while driving, it’s all too easy to drift into another lane, run off the road, or crash into a tree or another car during those few seconds of unconsciousness.
The Importance of Drowsy Driving Prevention Campaigns
Drowsy driving doesn’t have the same stigma as drunk driving, but it’s every bit as dangerous. Any business that has employees operating motor vehicles on the company’s behalf, or has employees at high risk for driving while fatigued (e.g., shift workers, young people, business travelers), should have explicit policies and educational programs with respect to drowsy driving.
A drowsy driving prevention campaign may not only reduce on-the-job vehicle accidents and injuries but also can help improve your company’s bottom line. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that motor vehicle crashes cost employers $60 billion each year in medical and legal expenses, property damage and lost productivity. A reduction in such accidents often translates into higher productivity and lower vehicle and workers’ compensation insurance premiums.
If your company has yet to develop specific policies or practices to prevent drowsy driving, you should act immediately. Here are four steps you can take to help reduce the risk of your employees driving while drowsy.
Establish annual safe driving education programs. Many people simply aren’t aware of the dangers of driving while drowsy. Providing an effective education/training program on the subject can make employees think twice before getting behind the wheel when tired.
A strong drowsy driving education program should contain at least three core elements, including:
The NHTSA offers a free training guide, PowerPoint presentation, videos and workplace posters to educate shift workers about drowsy driving. The National Road Safety Foundation also offers several downloadable drowsy driving training guides, videos and PowerPoint presentations.
Put drowsy driving policies in writing. Your company may already have a written driving policy, but does it include a section explaining your policies with regard to drowsy driving? It should. Any written driving policy should clearly indicate how much sleep an employee must have before getting behind the wheel of a vehicle and should describe how the company expects employees to handle drowsy driving situations. For example, a policy might require an employee to:
The policy should not be accusatory but should demonstrate your company’s commitment to employee safety and reducing incidents of drowsy driving. It should also include other basic guidelines for safe driving, including wearing a seat belt, never texting or using a handheld cellphone while driving, and prohibiting driving after drinking alcohol or taking drugs that might affect an employee’s perception or consciousness.
Monitor employee fitness. Drowsy driving is sometimes caused by certain health conditions. People suffering from sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome or narcolepsy, may be at increased risk for drowsy driving. Employees taking medication that causes drowsiness are at similar risk for a drowsy driving crash or near-miss.
As an employer, delving into your employees’ medical history and inquiring about prescription drugs can be a tricky legal area. At the very least, an employer should make a forceful and sustained effort to educate all employees on the enhanced risk that sleep disorders and certain medications present when driving, and provide information on how to get treatment for any sleep disorders and develop better sleep habits.
In some cases, however, employers are entitled to find out what over-the-counter or prescription medications employees are taking. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are entitled to inquire about such information when it is “job-related and consistent with business necessity” and there is objective evidence that the employee could pose a direct threat to himself or others. If you have evidence that an employee has a sleep or other condition that’s affecting his or her ability to drive safely, you may be entitled to find out the medication the employee is taking and take action to help reduce the risk of a drowsy driving accident. Before taking action, discuss this with your legal department.
Show that eliminating drowsy driving is a company priority. Employees are more likely to treat drowsy driving as a serious issue if it’s clear that management also takes it seriously. If possible, provide an area where employees can rest or get coffee before getting on the road. Actively encourage employees to use this area, and organize a buddy system where employees cover for one another when the other is resting. Get employees involved in combating drowsy driving at all levels of the organization; ask them what they believe will help reduce drowsy driving incidents, and bring home the dangers and importance of this issue.
Paul Giannetti is a workers’ compensation attorney based in Albany, N.Y.
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