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Highway Safety Forum Awake, Alert, Alive Overcoming the Dangers of Drowsy Driving, Member Rosekind's Opening Statement, Washington, DC
Mark R. Rosekind, PhD
Washington, DC

Good morning. Welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board and to Awake, Alert, Alive: Overcoming the Dangers of Drowsy Driving. I am Board Member Mark Rosekind and it is my privilege to preside over this forum today. Joining me on the dais are Dr. Robert Molloy, Deputy Director of our Office of Highway Safety, and Dr. Jana Price and Mr. Dennis Collins, senior human performance investigators. My thanks to all of the panelists who will provide their perspectives and their considerable expertise today.
We are calling this forum “Awake, Alert, Alive” because every driver must be awake and alert to operate a vehicle safely. Sufficient, good quality sleep is fundamental to alertness and human performance, yet so many Americans are on the road dangerously impaired by lack of sleep.
We know this is a serious national problem, yet current estimates may only point to the tip of the iceberg.
Conservative numbers tell us that driver fatigue may directly contribute to over 100,000 roadway crashes annually but these are only police-reported cases. There are some estimates that put the number of drowsy driving crashes at over a million a year. Conservative estimates suggest a thousand people are killed annually in these crashes, while other data indicate that five thousand, or as many as 7,500 lives are lost each year due to drowsy driving.
Experts agree that the number of crashes and fatalities officially attributed to fatigue is underestimated. There is no roadway test to determine sleepiness, we do not have a ‘fatigue-alyzer’ as we have a ‘breath-alyzer’ for alcohol intoxication. State reporting practices are inconsistent and there is little or no police training in identifying drowsiness as a crash factor. Self-reporting is unreliable. But one thing we do know, any resulting loss of life is tragic, needless, and preventable.
A drowsy driver can be a deadly driver. Even one night losing just two hours of sleep is sufficient to signicantly impair our abilities. Attention, reaction time, and decision-making can all be significantly reduced by as much as 20-50 percent. Driving in this condition could mean not reacting to the brake lights in front of us or not seeing the traffic light turning red.
Fatigue alone can be deadly. It also multiplies the adverse effects of other forms of impairment that lead to crashes, such as drug or alcohol impairment and distraction. Every other form of impairment may be exacerbated when our basic requirement for sleep is disrupted.
For more than 45 years, NTSB investigations have identifed fatigue as causal, contributory or a finding in crashes across all transportation modes. The agency has issued more than 200 safety recommendations addressing fatigue in such diverse areas as research, education and training, vehicle technologies, treatment of sleep disorders, and hours of service regulations and scheduling policies for commercial truck and bus drivers.
But most people drive cars. They operate personal vehicles. For most of us, there are no hours-of-service or rest rules. We have to rely on our own experience for knowledge of fatigue and its effects. Unfortunately, our personal experience, especially as it relates to self-diagnosing fatigue, is typically inaccurate.
In January 2013, the NTSB investigated a collision involving three passenger vehicles.The collision happened at about 8:40 in the morning. A nurse at a local hospital was driving home after more than 13 hours on duty.
She departed her lane, crossed over the median, and entered a northbound lane traveling against the flow of traffic. Her car then struck another vehicle, pushing it one lane over. This vehicle was struck again from behind by another car.
One driver was fatally injured, and the nurse was transported to a hospital, where she was treated for her injuries.
She had fallen asleep.
She had worked night shifts for nine years, and was familiar with the challenges of her schedule. Yet her inverted work schedule, along with her extended time since waking – in this case, nearly 16 hours – contributed to her falling asleep at the wheel.
Today’s forum offers us an opportunity to focus on the dangers of drowsy driving and on the countermeasures that can mitigate the dangers of fatigue.
We will identify what we know and what we don’t. Only the most robust data on drowsy driving can lead to the most effective countermeasures.
We will examine medical conditions that can lead to fatigue, such as obstructive sleep apnea and other sleep disorders.
We will hear about the challenges faced by young, novice drivers.
We will discuss irregular work schedules and how the same people we depend on for our 24/7 modern lifestyle – and even for lifesaving services – are vulnerable to taking to the road in a fatigued state.
We will hear about in-vehicle and on-road countermeasures and a variety of other strategies to reduce the risk of drowsy driving crashes.
And perhaps just as importantly, we will provide a public setting to examine the dangers of drowsy driving.
For awake and alert driving to become the expected norm, public awareness and education must play a prominent, preventive role.
This forum is for all of us.
It is for nurses, doctors, law enforcement officers, and security guards driving home after the night shift.
It is for the utility worker driving into the night to fix the power lines after a storm.
It is for the student startled into alertness by the blare of a horn as he drives home from an exam.
It is for any of us who have ever driven with too little sleep.
A crash can happen, literally, in the blink of an eye. It is our hope that this forum is one step toward a national awakening about the safety risks of drowsy driving.
Now I will turn to Dr. Jana Price, who, along with her colleagues, has done an outstanding job in organizing this forum.
Dr. Price.