Remarks by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Washington Traffic Safety Commission Symposium on Driver Fatigue
Bend, Oregon, November 21, 1996
Good evening. Thank you for inviting me here
today to talk to you about the role of driver fatigue in traffic
accidents. This is an important topic, one that has long occupied
the interest of the Safety Board, and I commend you for convening
this symposium to confront the issue and develop new and practical
counter-measures to reduce fatigue-related losses.
For many years, the Safety Board has been concerned
about the effects of fatigue in all modes of transportation and
has addressed this problem through accident investigations, safety
studies, and recommendations. In 1995, we co-sponsored with the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration a symposium on fatigue
As you may already know, the National Transportation
Safety Board is an independent federal agency with two major tasks:
to determine the probable causes of major transportation accidents
and to issue safety recommendations aimed at preventing accidents.
We do this by investigating accidents and by conducting safety
studies. We are the eyes and ears of the American people at an
The Safety Board investigates accidents in
all 5 modes of transportation: aviation, railroad, marine, pipeline
and highway. In too many of these investigations, we have found
fatigue to have contributed to the causes of accidents.
I know that many of you attending this conference
are from Alaska and are familiar with the grounding of the U.S.
Tankship EXXON VALDEZ in Prince William Sound, near Valdez, Alaska
on March 2, 1989. Although there were no human injuries, about
258,000 barrels of cargo were spilled when eight cargo tanks ruptured,
resulting in catastrophic damage to the environment and losses
to the local wildlife. While damage to the vessel and cargo amounted
to more than $28 million, the cost of the cleanup of the spilled
oil during 1989 alone was almost $2 billion, probably the most
expensive fatigue-related accident in history.
As with most accidents, we found that this
catastrophic oil spill resulted from a cascade of errors and circumstances.
The probable cause of the grounding of the EXXON VALDEZ was:
More recently, the Safety Board investigated
a highway accident involving the collision of a propane truck
with a bridge column in White Plains, New York. About 12:30 a.m.,
on July 27, 1994, a tractor cargo-tank semitrailer loaded with
9,200 gallons of propane was traveling east on Interstate 287.
As the truck drifted across the left lane onto the left shoulder
and struck the guardrail, the tank hit an overpass column. The
tractor and semitrailer separated, and the front head of the tank
fractured, releasing propane that vaporized into gas. The resulting
vapor cloud expanded until if found a source of ignition. When
it ignited, according to an eyewitness, a fireball rose 200 or
300 feet in the air. The tank was propelled northward about 300
feet and landed on a frame house, engulfing it in flames.
The truck driver was killed, 23 others were
injured, and an area with a radius of approximately 400 feet was
engulfed by fire.
We found this to be an example of a classic
fatigue accident. The Board found the probable causes to be the
reduction in alertness of the driver, consistent with falling
asleep, caused by his failure to properly schedule and obtain
rest, and the failure of the company to exercise adequate oversight
of the driver's hours of service.
These two accidents, which are only two of
the many accidents in which fatigue has been a factor, illustrate
the tragic results of operating while fatigued. Each of us here
knows exactly how it feels to be fatigued and what is does to
us. We've all experienced the dramatic effects of extreme fatigue
when we've tried to drive an hour longer than we should or even
tried to stay up to watch a movie.
With the growth of our 24-hour society, people
are exposed more and more to the dangers of fatigue. Today, we
need only drive from our home, live near railroad tracks, or board
an airplane to face first-hand the potential dangers from operator
fatigue. Our society now demands that goods be shipped anywhere
in the country - or even around the world - overnight. Many factories
have adopted just-in-time materials delivery. Trucking deregulation
might have been a boon to businesses and consumers by resulting
in lower costs of goods and services, but it didn't alleviate
the problem of fatigue for truck drivers. On the contrary, it
might have added to the pressures that lead to fatigue.
In general, fatigue leads to diminished performance
in many ways:
The Safety Board has issued about 80 fatigue-related
safety recommendations since 1972 to the modal administrations
in the Department of Transportation, transportation operators,
associations and unions. In 1989, we issued three major safety
recommendations to DOT, asking the Secretary to expedite a coordinated
research program on the effects of fatigue on all modes of transportation,
to develop an educational program and to review hours of service
regulations. This is on our list of Most Wanted Safety Recommendations.
The fact of the matter is that while highway
crashes cost society over $150 billion a year, no one knows how
much of this is attributable to fatigue. But a study of ours indicates
that fatigue represents a substantial portion of it.
In 1990, the Safety Board conducted a study
of 182 accidents that were fatal to the truck driver. Although
the study's main purpose was to assess the role of alcohol and
drug use in those accidents, we found that the most frequently
cited probable cause was fatigue. We followed up with a second
study that examined the factors that promote fatigue.
We used our standard investigative and probable
cause determination procedures for investigating 107 single vehicle,
heavy truck accidents. In all of these accidents, the driver survived
and was able to be interviewed soon after by one of the Board's
investigators. The Board carefully examined the truck drivers'
duty and sleep patterns for 96 hours before the accident and the
regularity or irregularity of their sleep patterns.
We found that the most critical factors in
predicting fatigue-related accidents are the duration of the most
recent sleep period, the amount of sleep in the past 24 hours,
and whether the sleep was continuous or split. As a result of
the findings, we recommended a revision of the hours-of-service
regulations to give drivers the opportunity to get at least 8
continuous hours of sleep.
In our study, truck drivers in fatigue related
accidents had an average of 5 1/2 hours of sleep in the last sleep
period prior to the accident. This is about an hour and a half
less than what the drivers felt they needed to feel rested. It
is also 2 1/2 hours less than the eight hours obtained on average
by truck drivers in our study in nonfatigue-related accidents.
The findings further indicate that truck drivers involved in fatigue-related
accidents obtained less than 7 hours of sleep in the 24-hour period
before the accident, compared to more than 9 hours obtained by
drivers not involved in fatigue-related accidents.
In drafting the hours-of-service regulations
in 1937, the Interstate Commerce Commission wrote:
"It is obvious that a man cannot work
efficiently or be a safe driver if he does not have an opportunity
to secure 8 hours' sleep. Allowance must be made for eating, dressing,
getting to and from work, and the enjoyment of the ordinary recreations."
Sixty years later, that is still our goal.
The Safety Board recognizes that regulations
cannot assure adequate sleep. Nevertheless, regulations can and
must provide the opportunity to obtain an adequate amount of rest.
However, the 8-hour off-duty requirement in the current regulations
doesn't do so because it doesn't provide time for eating, travel,
personal hygiene, and recreation. And, depending on various factors,
including the time of day, a driver may not be able to fall asleep
immediately at the beginning of his or her 8-hour off-duty period.
Our study also addressed split sleep patterns.
Although the drivers were obtaining 8 hours of sleep, they were
obtaining it in small blocks of time - an average of 4 hours at
a time. Research shows that sleep accumulated in short time blocks
impedes the recovery of performance abilities. The Safety Board
recommended elimination of the exemption that allows for split
sleep. We are not calling for elimination of sleeper berths. The
point is that the sleeper berth exemption encourages less than
8 hours of continuous sleep.
Up to this point I have focused on commercial
truck drivers, but they are not the only ones who are in danger
of driving while drowsy. Each and every one of us poses a risk
if we get behind the wheel of a vehicle while fatigued, or if
we stay there until we become fatigued.
Data from the Fatal Accident Reporting System,
which is a census of all fatal accidents on public roads, show
that there were 1,440 accidents involving driver fatigue in 1994.
Over 90% of these fatigue related accidents involved drivers of
passenger cars or light trucks. For your information, just over
2% of the accidents occurred in the State of Washington.
However, these numbers probably underestimate
the actual occurrence of fatigue in accidents. First of all, not
all State police reports include a category of fatigue on their
forms. Second, fatigue is difficult to determine; it is not like
drug or alcohol testing where a blood test can be given to determine
the presence of illegal substances. There is no such test for
fatigue. Instead, determination of fatigue relies heavily upon
tracing the operators' history to better understand the patterns
of their duty and rest cycles, duration of sleep periods and other
I believe that most people have accepted the
fact that driving while drowsy creates a danger on the roadways.
There are, however, steps that can be taken to minimize the problem.
Earlier I mentioned that the Safety Board and NASA co-sponsored a multi-modal symposium on managing fatigue in transportation. The symposium was attended by nearly 600 people from 16 countries representing all modes of transportation. This event was unique because people from management, labor, academia, and government all worked and learned together. Renowned sleep and fatigue experts talked about the physiological basis for fatigue, sleep disorders, the effect of fatigue on performance and countermeasures to fatigue.
The bottom line is that there is no cure or
quick fix to fatigue. The only way to counteract fatigue is to
get enough sleep. Sleep loss is cumulative. If you need 8 hours
sleep a night but only get 7, at the end of the week you have
a sleep deficit of 7 hours. The only way to repay that debt and
alleviate or avoid the fatigue associated with it is to sleep.
Napping, particularly naps of about 40 minutes duration, have
also been shown to be an effective way to promote alertness temporarily.
It is important to realize that naps are not a substitute for
a longer period of sleep but instead should be viewed as a supplemental
sleep period in addition to a full night sleep.
Combating fatigue is a shared responsibility
among government, industry, and employees. There is also a family
responsibility; demands on a worker's time go well beyond time
spent on the job. Families must make sure their needs do not deprive
the workers of their much-needed sleep.
Much is known about fatigue, what causes it
and what to do to prevent it. It is time to implement this knowledge
to prevent fatigue related accidents from occurring.
This symposium is a great example of confronting
this issue at the grass roots level. It will take the combined
efforts of the federal government, State governments and private
industry to eliminate operator fatigue as a major safety issue
in all modes of transportation.
Thank you for inviting me, and for your continuing
efforts to deal with fatigue in transportation and therefore save
lives of our fellow citizens.