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March 7, 2012

Being sleep deprived is as bad as being drunk

by: Mary F. Schiavo

Motley Rice’s aviation team is busy litigating the crash of Colgan Airlines flight 3407, which crashed near Buffalo, New York, on February 12, 2009. You may recall that the pilot and co-pilot of this flight had not slept in a bed the night before; both were sleep deprived and the co-pilot was sick on the day of the flight. Recent sleep deprivation studies conducted by Harvard, Stanford and the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported that if you have not slept in 24 hours, you are just as impaired as if you are legally drunk.

The Harvard researchers pointed out that 2 million Americans nod off at the wheel each week, and drowsy drivers get into 1.9 million crashes a year. Twenty percent of all serious motor vehicle accidents, or 1 out of every 5, involve sleep deprived drivers. Harvard researchers found that the approximate annual death toll attributed to sleep deprived drivers is 7,500, and serious injuries is 50,000. The Stanford researchers found that almost every major high-profile accident, including the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska; the fouling of Prince William Sound; the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl in the former USSR and 3 Mile Island in Pennsylvania; and several airplane crashes which Motley Rice’s aviation team are litigating, involved sleep deprived operators. The Stanford study showed that the reaction times of people who were sleep deprived were as poor as subjects who were legally drunk. Even more interesting is that the impairment of people who were drunk was comparable to people who had only mild or moderate sleep disturbance.

The Stanford study compared 113 sleep deprived volunteers with 80 normal volunteers who intentionally became drunk on orange juice and vodka. The juice and vodka team performed the tests with blood alcohol levels at 0.057/0.08 (legally drunk) and 0.083. The real shock, however, was the sleep deprived performance. The sober, but sleep deprived subjects, performed as badly as or worse than the drinkers at all three blood alcohol levels.

While there are already standards and regulations in place for astronauts, truckers, pilots and some medical personnel, the rules do not appear to be tough enough or have any realistic standards involving testing and verification. Rules are nonexistent or ignored for other critical operators such as automobile drivers, air traffic controllers, airplane maintenance workers and others who perform life saving functions in society. Given the shocking impairment caused by lack of sleep, perhaps it is time to have pilots, air traffic controllers, nuclear plant operators, 18-wheel truckers and others actually pass reaction time tests before they are allowed to fly or perform other important functions.

While one can’t be arrested for being sleepy in the United States, you can in Australia. In Australia, police officers make four million random stops a year, checking for both sleep-deprived or drunk drivers, both of whom are physiologically impaired. The Harvard researchers reported various strategies that subjects shared with them to help themselves stay awake when driving. The most creative, perhaps, was by one woman who clamped her ponytail in her sunroof when she drove her car so that, when she nodded off, the pulling of her ponytail would jerk her awake.

The study performed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in conjunction with the Perpetual Robotics Laboratory in Pisa, Italy, found that staying alert may be beyond our ability to control. Researchers found that the neurons in sleepy brains simply shut down. Worse, they found that the neurons used most often during the waking day were also the first ones to turn off when people are sleepy. The researchers said it was almost as if the sleep-deprived neurons decided on their own that they’d had enough and went off-line.

These three studies present frightening realities for the 35% of Americans who recently told the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that they routinely sleep less than seven hours a night. It is frightening to think that more than one third of Americans are walking around with the neurons they need most shutting down and going off-line. Hopefully, widespread awareness of the danger that sleep-deprived individuals are placing on themselves and others will make more responsible anyone operating dangerous machinery or equipment, or holding others’ lives in their hands. Until then, we will likely continue to litigate accidents one at a time and hope to hold businesses and individuals accountable for the damage they cause by being sleep deprived at work. It will be a long time before we see police pulling over and carting the sleepy off to jail. But, it would give new and needed meaning to the words, “sleep it off.”

Lawyer Tips: If you have a case involving sleep deprivation, you might want to look at the studies to which I refer in the above blog, including studies by Nelson B. Powell, DDS, MD, of Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Center; Professor Chiara Cirelli, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with the Perpetual Robotics Laboratory in Pisa, Italy; and Charles A. Czeisler, Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Related studies by Chungbai Zhang and Stefanos Kales also make good reading.