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Danger of fatigue ignored or trivialized Antiquated laws govern rail, road, air travel


A BALTIMORE County trucking firm, George Transfer Inc., filed for bankruptcy Feb. 16. The Federal Highway Administration, after fining the firm more than $400,000 in the past three years for numerous safety violations, shut it down in January 1996 for failing to take corrective action. Violations included 232 instances of requiring or permitting drivers to falsify logs aimed at keeping tired truckers off the road.

The New Jersey Transit Authority has announced that it is ending the nighttime split shift schedule worked by an engineer who ran a red light Feb. 9, ramming his Hoboken-bound train into an oncoming train which had the right of way. The engineers on both trains and a passenger were killed, and 160 people were injured. According to Jeff Maclin, a transit authority spokesperson, the first engineer had worked from 6:11 p.m. Feb. 8 to 12:58 a.m. Feb. 9. He then took a break until 5:44 a.m., when he returned to work. He could have worked legally until 10:57 a.m. The crash occurred at 8:40 a.m.

Investigators of the collision between a MARC train and an Amtrak train that killed 11 people near Silver Spring Feb. 16 are focusing on about a dozen plausible causes, including a faulty track signal, poor signal location and other equipment shortcomings. Fatigue is on their list, too. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will collect data on human factors that affect performance, including the MARC train engineer's sleep, health, medication use, meals, and moods in the 72 hours before the crash.

Careful NTSB detective work implicated fatigue in the collision of two Conrail trains near Thompsontown, Pa., in 1988 and of two Santa Fe Railway Co. trains in Corona, Calif., in 1990.

"In any transportation accident where somebody missed a signal or a stop sign, where forgetfulness or not paying attention may have been involved, you have to wonder whether fatigue played a role," Dr. Mark Rosekind, a psychologist and expert in human factors at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said in a telephone interview last week.

"At the very least," he said, "you have to look at that. You have to rule fatigue out."

Fatigue is an ever-present threat in transportation. Fatigue caused an estimated 17,000 of the 43,000 fatal transportation accidents that occurred in the United States last year, said Dr. Allan Pack, medical director of the Washington-based National Sleep Foundation. Most of these deaths occurred on the nation's highways.

The dangers of fatigue in transportation still are mostly ignored or trivialized by management, labor, and society at large. Congress has shown little interest in modernizing laws that govern hours of work and mandatory rest, according to testimony from sleep experts who spoke at a two-day conference on managing fatigue in transportation, jointly sponsored by the NTSB and NASA in November 1995.

The NTSB -- an advisory group, not a regulatory one -- wants an aggressive Federal program to study fatigue, educate workers, and upgrade transportation rules.

Today's trains, trucks, planes, and ships are far more sophisticated than in 1907, when present laws governing hours of service took effect. But humans are much as they were in those horse-and-buggy days. To maintain optimum alertness, people need sufficient sleep -- about eight hours on average, sleep experts say, and about an hour more than most people get today. People also function best if they sleep at the same time each day, ideally at night.

Truckers and railroaders both have onerous schedules. Truckers the United States are permitted to drive for 10 hours and go back on the road after only eight hours' rest. A driver thus may start one workday at 6 a.m. and the next at midnight.

Railroaders may work shifts up to 11 hours and 59 minutes. Under Federal Railroad Administration rules, they then must have eight hours off: time they may use to eat, shower, and see their families, as well as sleep. They may be called back right after those eight hours. If they don't accept the call-back, they may be booted to the bottom of the work list. Given such unpredictable and irregular off-duty hours, their sleep often is cut short.

Because biological clocks deep in tne brain program humans for daytime activity and nighttime sleep, lack of sleep hits workers the hardest at night. Swedish researcher Torbjorn Akerstedt, the keynote speaker at the International Symposium on Night and Shiftwork held in New London, Conn., in June, told of wiring train drivers with electrodes to monitor their brain waves and check their alertness around the clock. On every night shift, he said, one in four drivers fell asleep. They missed warning lights without realizing they had done so.

At 6:12 a.m. on June 5, 1995, a New York City subway train slammed into the rear of a standing train, killing the motorman on the runaway train and injuring 54 passengers. Co-workers said motormen commonly kept the windows open and sang to keep themselves awake on the night shift. The NTSB has not completed its investigation.

In October, 1995, a chemical truck overturned, snarling Interstate jTC 95 traffic in Virginia for 20 miles and for more than 12 hours. The 5:15 a.m accident occurred when the driver of the tanker, who survived the crash, apparently fell asleep. State police charged him with reckless driving, raising an interesting legal question: What is the culpability of a driver who fails to get enough sleep?

Ordinary motorists, not truckers, actually cause 96 percent of fatigue-related highway crashes. In one such case, Robert Bromwell Russell II, board chairman of Baltimore's Union Memorial Hospital, and his son Edward died last November when the senior Mr. Russell apparently fell asleep driving home from a duck-hunting trip and crashed into a tree. Most people believe they can tell if they are about to fall asleep. They are wrong. You have to pay attention to warnings like wandering thoughts, missing traffic signs, and drifting out of your lane. The only sure cure for sleepiness is getting some sleep.

Everyone can help reduce fatigue on roads and railways. Write your congressman. Urge more support for research on sleep and fatigue. Demand reform of antiquated hours of work laws. Push for action on the NTSB's "most wanted" safety changes list. Most important of all: Don't drive when you are drowsy.

Lynne Lamberg is the author of "Bodyrhythms: Chronobiology and Peak Performance" (Morrow, 1994). She writes from Baltimore.

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