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Distraction, Fatigue & Impairment: What Any Safety Professional Can Do

By Christopher Hart
Published: November 7, 2014 | Last updated: November 10, 2014 09:48:19
Key Takeaways

Reduce accidents by educating your staff on distraction, fatigue, and impairment

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This article was provided by Christopher A. Hart, originally posted to the Journal of the American Society of Safety Engineers.

As Professional Safety readers may know, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates incidents in all transportation modes. What some readers may not consider, however, is that any company with employees that commute to or from work in cars or buses, or that drive at work, has a stake in transportation safety.

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, 33,561 people died as a result of motor vehicle crashes in 2012. Perhaps just as importantly from a workforce management standpoint, more than 2.3 million people were injured. The loss of an employee is a personal tragedy for his/her loved ones. To an employer, it also means the loss of that employee's training, productivity and experience. Injuries mean lost workdays, diminished performance and elevated healthcare expenses. That is why all safety professionals, not just those in transportation-related businesses, have a stake in learning lessons from crashes on roads.


The following examples of distraction, fatigue and impairment are taken from highway incidents in commercial transportation that NTSB has investigated. However, all drivers face these issues, and safety professionals can help reduce their costly and sometimes lethal effects.


NTSB has investigated incidents caused by distraction in all modes and methods of transportation, including roads. In 2010, a truck driver distracted by cell-phone use lost control of a 53-ft tractor-trailer in Munfordville, KY, causing a crash that claimed 11 lives. Later that year in Gray Summit, MO, a pickup truck driver texting while driving initiated a chain-reaction crash that killed him and a 15-year-old student who was in a school bus, and injured 38 others. In 2013, an oversize truck caused the collapse of the I-5 Skagit River Bridge near Mount Vernon, WA. The investigation revealed that a pilot/escort vehicle driver failed to communicate potential hazards, due in part to distraction caused by her hands-free cell phone.

NTSB Believes That a Cultural Shift Is Needed to Prioritize Distraction-Free Transportation Operations

In 2004, in Alexandria, VA, the driver of a 12-ft-high motorcoach passed several signs warning of an upcoming arched overpass with a lower clearance in the right lane. The motorcoach remained in the right lane and struck the overpass. One passenger was seriously injured and 10 others sustained minor injuries. Like the pilot-escort vehicle driver in the bridge collapse, this driver was cognitively distracted from his driving responsibilities by a hands-free cell phone.

According to a 2013 survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, nearly 70% of drivers reported talking on cell phones while driving in the past 30 days. Hands-free devices are not risk-free. Another AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety report found that drivers suffer a similar level of cognitive impairment whether using a hands-free or a handheld cell phone. Safety professionals can, and should, lead the way.

What Safety Professionals Can Do

Safety professionals can draft a company policy against using any portable electronic device in a company car, or using a company device in any vehicle while driving. A zero-tolerance policy can help keep a driver's attention where it belongs—on the road. If an employee must take a phone call, e-mail or text, there is a simple way to do so without putting others at risk: pull the vehicle over. Safety professionals can also remind employees that while their off-duty time is their own, there is no quitting time for attentive driving. Staying focused on the task at hand can save lives, whether on the job, or in a personal car during a daily commute.

Visibility on the road can be a nighmare due to weather conditions or night driving. If you are working on the road, it is essential that drivers are able to see you. There has been a shift in the typical working hours for those involved in road construction, as most road construction is not done during the night. This avoids traffic back up during peak hours, and allows the workers to be on the road during times of lighter traffic volume. Though there is less traffic, it is dangerous for workers to be on the road without high visibility PPE. For more on worker high visibility PPE options, check out


Fatigue can impair every aspect of human performance. Overwhelming scientific data clearly shows that sleep loss and circadian disruption can affect cognitive and motor skills, degrade health and disturb mood. Studies have shown that, for most people, losing 2 hours of sleep can cause impairment equivalent to about a .05% blood alcohol concentration.

For example, in 2009, 10 people were killed when a truck plowed into seven cars near Miami, OK. It was the worst highway crash in the state's history. The driver suffered from a deadly combination of an altered work schedule, acute sleep loss and sleep apnea. He never even touched the brakes.

In 2011, the fatigued driver of a motorcoach carrying 58 passengers fell asleep at the wheel and drifted off the road near Doswell, VA. He awoke, overcorrected, and the bus rolled over. Four people were killed and 14 others were seriously injured because the driver was impaired by fatigue due to acute sleep loss, poor sleep quality and circadian disruption. His company failed to follow adequate safety practices and failed to support safe practices for its drivers. Driving records demonstrated that the driver had violated hours-of-service rules at least 85 times.


Commercial vehicle drivers are often responsible for dozens of lives, and their companies are often responsible for dozens of their own drivers who must be well-rested to operate safely. Even if their companies do not employ or deal with commercial vehicle operators, all safety professionals should consider the impact of fatigue on their own workforce. The problem of fatigue is not limited to driving with little rest the night before. NTSB investigations have seen quality of sleep problems and the contributions of disrupted circadian rhythms, resulting from everything from jet lag to a shift adjustment. Fatigue may also result from a sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This medical condition causes a person to awaken briefly many times throughout the night, causing excessive daytime fatigue. OSA often goes undiagnosed, so people who suffer from the disorder may not even know that they have it.

What Safety Professionals Can Do

NTSB fatigue recommendations include education and strategies to:

  • Develop a fatigue education and countermeasures training program
  • Educate operators and schedulers
  • Include information on use of fatigue mitigation strategies such as naps, caffeine and light
  • Review and update fatigue education materials and strategies

Combating fatigue in transportation operations is a complex issue that requires multiple solutions including:

  • Scheduling policies and practices
  • Education and awareness
  • Organizational strategies
  • Healthy sleep
  • Vehicle and environmental strategies
  • Research and evaluation

Commercial transportation companies and public-sector transportation agencies are regulated by strict hours-of-service requirements. In addition, these operations have medical certification requirements that can help in the identification and subsequent treatment of sleep conditions that can lead to fatigue.

Safety professionals in any company can offer screening for, and treatment of, conditions such as OSA. They can also educate their workforces about fatigue, the dangers of fatigued driving and the unreliability of self-diagnosis of fatigue. And, they can champion policies that help reduce the likelihood of employee fatigue, such as avoiding frequent changes in employee work shifts.

Impaired Driving

In 2012 in the U.S., more than 10,000 deaths in motor vehicle crashes (nearly 1 in 3) were alcohol related. But in recent years, NTSB has been learning more about impairment by drugs other than alcohol, whether over-the-counter, prescription or illicit. Several impairing substances played a role in the 2012 collision of a school bus with a truck at an intersection near Chesterfield, NJ. As is often seen in NTSB investigations, none of these substances was alcohol or an illicit drug. After stopping for a flashing red light and stop sign, the school bus driver did not see a truck coming, and proceeded through the intersection. The driver was suffering cognitive decrements from fatigue, exacerbated by the sedative effects of prescription medications. The driver tested positive for clonazepam, used for treating anxiety and seizure disorders; desvenlafaxine, which is used to treat depressive disorders; and tramadol, which works by changing the way the body senses pain. An 11-year-old child died in this crash, and five other passengers sustained serious injuries, including fractured skulls and brain injuries.

Research, education and laws on drugged driving have lagged behind those on drinking and driving. Driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) is a growing cause of highway death and injury. In May 2012, NTSB held a forum on impaired driving called Reaching Zero. The agency took stock of the latest research on drug and alcohol impaired driving. As a result, NTSB issued a set of 19 safety recommendations, calling for further measures to reduce DUI fatalities, and better collection of data on both DUI and DUID. For more information on Reaching Zero initiatives, visit

What Safety Professionals Can Do

Commercial transportation companies and public-sector transportation agencies are already required to train employees on the dangers of using impairing substances while driving, develop a written policy, and test their employees for alcohol and for at least five classes of drugs. These employers also have an interest in initiatives that affect the broader driving public, since the company depends not only on its own drivers, but also on other motorists, for the safe transportation of goods and passengers.

But, safety professionals in any company have an interest in their workers' safety. Any safety professional can advocate for his/her company to support such measures as lower blood alcohol content limits and ignition interlocks for all DUI offenders. And any safety professional can remind employees of the value of a designated driver prior to weekends, particularly holiday weekends. Safety professionals can emphasize that impairment begins with the first drink. The afternoon before a happy hour or party popular with employees, whether company-sponsored or not, may also be an educational opportunity.

Employees should know that the legality of a drug is not the only indicator of its potential to impair a driver. Substances ranging from cold remedies to anxiety medications may also affect their ability to drive. Most businesses, irrespective of whether they are a transportation company, have an interest in transportation safety. By working to take distraction, fatigue and impairment out of transportation, safety professionals can help make the roads safer for their employees and for everyone.


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Written by Christopher Hart

Christopher A. Hart is acting chair of National Transportation Safety Board. His previous government service includes positions as deputy administrator of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and deputy director for air traffic safety oversight at Federal Aviation Administration.

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