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Driver Fatigue isn't Just a Problem for Truckers

June 20th, 2014

We are always saddened to hear about the terrible crashes that occur in the overnight hours. While the news shocks us, the circumstances should not.

For years, medical and transportation experts have warned of the deadly dangers of fatigue.

Scientific study confirms that one of the three basic elements in any fatigue-related crash is that they often take place late at night or early in the morning. The frequency of fatigue-related human error transportation crashes increases markedly after midnight, peaking between 4 and 6 a.m.

The second common element regularly found in fatigue accidents is demanding work schedules, and the third is the absence of alcohol or performance-impairing drugs.

Fatigue alone is enough to make even highly skilled pilots and drivers make fatal mistakes.

Fatigue affects all modes of transportation. Society unwisely requires workers to perform dangerous tasks at times when their bodies would have them sleep.

With the vast amounts of destructive power found in modern trucks, trains, ships and planes, when today’s workers fall asleep on the job, or as is more common try to fight through their fatigue, there can be disastrous consequences for public safety and the environment.

This year, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued new rules limiting hours of service for passenger airline pilots, a sensible science-based move long overdue. But at the last moment, DOT exempted cargo airline pilots from the rule, even though cargo pilots use the same aircraft, fly the same air routes, and take off and land on the same runways as passenger airlines.

Furthermore, due to the nature of cargo transportation, cargo pilots more commonly experience the factors that cause fatigue because they often fly through the night. No matter what the probable cause, most cargo accidents occur between midnight and 6 a.m.

This “cargo carve-out” was done due to selective cost/benefit concerns of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. We say selective because OMB’s assessment of the cost of a cargo airplane crash ($31 million) is ludicrously low.
Even cargo airlines don’t believe that number. UPS holds insurance for $1.5 billion for a single aircraft accident. Carriers know the terrible potential of a fatigue-related accident. Yet the cargo airlines’ management was the most ardent lobbyist for the exemption.

It is ironic that the National Transportation Safety Board is in the midst of investigating a classic fatigue-related cargo airliner crash after cargo airlines were carved out of the new fatigue rules.

In the predawn hours of Aug. 14 last year, a UPS Airbus A-300 crashed while attempting to land in Birmingham, Ala., killing both crew members.

This crash exhibited all three of the hallmarks of fatigue: the time it happened, the work schedules of the pilots and the absence of alcohol or drugs. The cockpit voice recorder even contains discussions between the pilots acknowledging that they were both fatigued.

The acting chairman of the NTSB, Christopher Hart, last week emphasized his agency’s decades-long advocacy for stronger fatigue rules in all transportation modes when he said, “Fatigue is a big concern of ours for the very basic reason that commercial transportation is 24/7 and humans are not.” It is a simple truth.

The dangers of cargo pilot fatigue should be especially concerning in the New York metropolitan region, where Newark Liberty International Airport serves as the region’s main hub for overnight package delivery.

In 2012, Newark Airport handled approximately 741,000 tons of cargo and ranks with John F. Kennedy International Airport among the 10 top cargo destinations in the United States.

The NTSB will soon rule on the cause of the Birmingham crash and will have the opportunity to back up its concerns about the impact of fatigue.

All you have to do is watch the predawn cargo traffic at Newark Liberty to know how important this safety issue is.

Jim Hall is a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Merrill M. Mitler is an investigator and expert in sleep disorders.

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