Fatigue Linked to Faulty Judgment, Federal Agency Says

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An association between fatigue and faulty judgment in life-or-death situations is dramatically drawn in a recent review by the National Transportation Safety Board of airline accidents and near misses.

“Even though the Board’s report concerns air traffic controllers, law enforcement officers, too, risk disastrous consequences from the effect of sleep deprivation on brain function,” Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center told Force Science News. “As with the controllers, slower reaction times, missed cues, and foggy judgment brought on by fatigue in cops can result in lost lives. The difference is that with police officers the lives lost may include their own.”

Lewinski cites a study some years ago of officer fatalities in auto accidents. Researchers found that the highest-risk time for officers was when driving home after a critical incident that significantly extended their work day. “The combination of coming off an adrenalin dump and entering a sleep-deprivation state produced fatigue that impaired their attention and judgment with deadly consequences,” Lewinski explains.

He also points out that most major disasters in the last 3 decades, from the nuclear meltdown at Three-Mile Island to the explosion of the Challenger shuttle, “were caused by individuals operating with significant sleep deprivation, often on the first night of a new shift.”

In a letter this month urging reform in scheduling and training, the NTSB linked sleep deprivation in air traffic controllers to the worst U.S. airline crash in 5 years and to at least 4 near-fatal incidents.

The fatal crash claimed 49 lives last August when a commuter jet tried to use a closed runway in Lexington, KY. The controller on duty had reported to work for the midnight shift after sleeping for only 2 hours.

The close calls included a controller working after only 4 hours’ sleep who ordered a passenger jet to take off directly into the path of another plane in Chicago and a controller who cleared a cargo jet for takeoff on a closed runway in Denver who had gotten 60 to 90 minutes of sleep before working an overnight shift.

“The human brain is most alert and functions best when well-rested,” Lewinski says. “You may think you can will yourself to overcome fatigue or compensate for it with caffeine intake, for example. But that’s true only within fairly rigid limitations. Beyond those limits, physiology will win out, to your decided disadvantage.”

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