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Lack of sleep involved in 80% of highway deaths, says expert

Posted: May 25, 2016 by Dave Nesseth

ABBOTSFORD, BC – The days of pulling all-nighters to earn bragging rights should be a thing of the past, says a sleep expert who addressed attendees at the 2016 Truxpo trade show last week in British Columbia.

Some 80% of highway collision fatalities involve driver fatigue, warns Mike Harnett from Six Safety Systems. Worst of all, some 40% of those fatigued drivers have been awake for more than 17 hours prior to the crash.

“Only sleep can cure fatigue. You can’t Tim Horton it away; you can’t Starbuck it away; and you can’t Red Bull it away. You can’t mask it,” said Harnett.

Harnett, whose title is vice-president of human factors, says 17 hours of wakefulness equates to a blood alcohol content level of .05%. Up to 24 hours of wakefulness equates to a blood alcohol content level of .10%, which is considered to be impaired.

As an issue, sleep has begun to garner plenty of attention in the trucking world. Currently, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is conducting research through public listening sessions to gather input for a potential rule on sleep apnea.

“Sleep is the most important thing in your life, whether you realize it or not,” says Harnett. “Fatigue accumulates. It builds and builds and builds. We can’t just will it away.”

Thanks mostly to the invention of electric light, humans have actually reduced average sleep durations from nine hours to less than seven, says Harnett, as people no longer depend on the sun to guide the circadian rhythms of the body. The body has over 700 rhythms. Harnett says humans have a built-in body clock that responds to both light and darkness. It tells us when to eat, sleep, rest and be active.

“The key to a healthy life is keeping these rhythms in harmony with each other,” says Harnett.

Jet lag, for example, gives a sense of how body rhythms can be disturbed.

“We are not nocturnal. We are not cats, rats or bats,” says Harnett, who notes that most traffic collision occur just after a typical work day ends, when people’s bodies start to wind down for the evening.

Napping can boost alertness for hours, suggests Harnett. 

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