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that sleep of death

By enelson
Tuesday, March 11th, 2008 at 8:47 pm in Bicycling, driving, Environment, Misc. Transportation, Safety.

bayou-canot-amtrak-disaster.jpg When I heard that the sheriff’s deputy who killed two bicyclists on Sunday told people he’d fallen asleep, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being reminded of personal experiences of drowsy driving.

To start with, there’s right now. I’m jet-lagged from last week’s vacation (thus explaining the stale blog) and will probably drive home tonight.

I can think of too many instances of leaning forward, clutching the steering wheel, eyes bugging out, munching on grotesquely spiced snack foods to keep from dozing.

“Stop and get a motel room,” my wife would tell me over the mobile. “Don’t be fatally cheap.” She has special standing on this point, having lost her dad to “that sleep of death,” to misquote Shakespeare.

The reported further details of Sunday’s tragedy also dredged up some nagging issues. The driver who killed the bicyclists had reportedly worked more than 12 hours on Saturday, and then had to come in early Sunday to work again.

Federal regulators, operating under the laissez-faire philosophy of our current government, have been at odds with highway safety advocates seeking stricter shift/sleep standards for truckers.

And just the other week, I was chatting up tug boat captains about Coast Guard regulations governing the towing of such things as massive oil tank barges. They were worried about requirements to operate towboats, but they gave the lack of sleep regulations as another example of the agency’s business-enslaved philosophy.

Nearly a decade ago  the National Transportation Safety Board added this to its “most wanted” list of government safety regulations:

Establish within 2 years scientifically based hours-of-service regulations that set limits on hours of service, provide predictable work and rest schedules, and consider circadian rhythms and human sleep and rest requirements.

Last year, the NTSB chided the Coast Guard for having failed to act. If you thought the bike tragedy was bad, hearken back to 1993, when an inexperienced crew member rammed the barge he was pushing (the captain was alseep) into a bridge abutment while his captain slept. It was a railroad bridge, and Amtraks’ Sunset Limited soon derailed off of that bridge into Bayou Canot and killed 42 in the railroad’s worst-ever accident.

I’m no fan of the nanny state, but when it comes to keeping employers honest about little life-or-death details like shift differential and qualifications, I challenge anyone to argue that the government should look the other way.

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6 Responses to “that sleep of death”

  1. DensityDuck Says:

    The problem, though, is that the assumption is that firms will calculate the number of man-hours they need, divide that by the number of hours one man can legally work, and hire that many people.

    Instead, they hire two guys and work them to death. When caught, they toss up their hands and say “shucks, I guess you got us” and pay the fine. Then they go right back to slave-driving those two guys.

    It’s like illegal immigration. Nobody in the government wants to go after the source, because it would mean they’d have to do actual work–and take responsibility for the results. On the other hand, if they don’t do anything, then even if everything goes to hell it isn’t THEIR fault.

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    While I share your cynicism generally, the line from industry has some logic to it: The barge-towing people say that the massive liability they face if something goes wrong is a powerful incentive to make sure everyone’s competent and alert. If you’re Exxon, you can probably afford to pay a few billion and move on, however. The barge and trucking companies aren’t generally that rich, however. As for the regulatory big stick, I can’t see much to stop people from abusing work rules. The inspections are rare and the fines are laughable for any company that employs more than 500 people.

  3. Reedman Says:

    I believe that part of the anger the Teamsters have about NAFTA is tied to the possibility of Mexican truckers driving unlimited hours in the USA, and there is no recourse due to the combination of national sovereignty and the treaty.

    Exxon is still litigating what happened with the Valdez and Captain Hazelwood.

  4. Doug Faunt Says:

    In February of 2001, a motorist fell asleep while driving, and his vehicle ended up on the railway track at Selby, causing a major accident and the death of 10 railway passengers.
    You can check the BBC News web site.

  5. Hayden K. Says:

    I’m with your wife. My grandfather died this way (driving home across Texas late at night); my father almost died the same way (driving home across Illinois late at night); too much dedication to work and not enough to oneself, perhaps. At least they were both single-vehicle crashes.

    Jet lag is incredible, especially for those of us who don’t sleep in aircraft–it is a good reminder that there are times when it is almost impossible to remain awake. Even if one is awake, one’s judgment is shot.

    With limited exceptions–perhaps delivering transplant organs or a vital vaccine a la the Iditarod–it should be possible for people to get enough sleep while doing work or driving home or whatnot. It’s healthier for them and, as you point out, ultimately for all of us.

  6. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Hayden, I hope its comforting to know that last night, I got the first good night’s sleep since my trip, so tonight’s trip home should be less of a struggle.

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