Are Sleepy Pilots Risking Your Life? | Reader's Digest

Are Sleepy Pilots Risking Your Life?

A new National Sleep Foundation Survey reveals the shocking risky sleep habits of transportation professionals.

By Lauren Gelman
Pilot in Airplane© Digital Vision/Thinkstock

The last thing any traveler wants to imagine is an exhausted pilot at the helm of their plane at 50,000 feet.

However, more than two dozen accidents and over 250 fatalities have been chalked up to pilot fatigue in the past 20 years, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Recent ABC News investigations showed current and former pilots missed radio calls, entered incorrect readings in instruments, and even fell asleep in mid-flight.

Now, a new National Sleep Foundation survey reveals that overtired pilots, bus drivers, and train operators are not sleeping well—over half of all pilots and train operators say they rarely or never get a good night’s rest—and this lack of sleep can cause alarming safety problems. Twenty percent of pilots, 18 percent of train operators, and 14 percent of truck drivers surveyed say they have had a “near miss” on the job because of sleepiness.

New Rules for Safer Skies

The NSF survey results come about two months after the Federal Aviation Administration issued an overhaul of rules to ensure that pilots are well rested. Under the old guidelines, pilots could work 16-hour days or longer and had only eight hours off between shifts (which included time to get to a hotel, sleep, eat, dress, and return to work), according to USA Today. The new rules require 10 hours off between shifts, which must be 14 hours or less, with actual flight time limited to eight or nine hours.

However, the new FAA rules don’t go into effect until January 2014, meaning there’s still potential issue with sleepy pilots. Also, critics of the new guidelines claim that they fail to address the controversial subject of pilots’ commutes to work—a significant potential contributor to their fatigue. According to USA Today, long commutes are often an economic necessity for pilots because low salaries make it difficult to live near big commuter-hub cities.

A Look at Your Risk on the Road

You may not be able to do much about sleepy pilots, or bus or truck drivers, but you can watch your own drowsy driving habits. Every year 1.9 million drivers have a fatigue-related crash or near-miss, according to Mark Rosekind, PhD, member of the National Transportation Safety Board—which can be as lethal a habit as driving while intoxicated. Tips to keep alert:

Get enough sleep before you drive. Data from the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center found that sleep-related crashes were more likely among those who get less than six hours of sleep each night.

Watch for these warning signs: Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking/heavy eyelids; trouble keeping your head up; drifting from your lane; inability to remember the last miles you drove; yawning repeatedly; and feeling restless, irritable, or aggressive.

Plan for driving breaks (every two hours or 100 miles). Even if you don’t feel tired, take a nap or guzzle some coffee. Keep in mind it takes 20 minutes for caffeine to jumpstart your system.

Don’t count on music or fresh air to wake you up. Rolling down the window or cranking up the radio help, but only for 10 minutes.

Don’t go it alone. Drive with someone else for long distances so you can trade places behind the wheel, and catch each other if you’re drifting off.

  • Your Comments

    • Me

      Maybe if people are really that concerned they should be willing to pay more for tickets and insist that airlines pay crews better and ensure that schedules are not so crazy (I earned less than $16,000 my first year as an airline pilot and I worked long days). I only get paid after the door is shut and the parking brake is off. All of that time I am doing the preflight and safety checks and the time when passengers board is not paid. I work several hours a day unpaid due to the Railroad Act. We often switch from late nights to early mornings in a single trip (typically 3 or 4 days). As a commuter you may look at me as doing something dangerous, but I actually commute in a day early if I need to in order to avoid fatigue. There are many of us who consider that and do it safely. A few bad grapes make the whole bunch look bad. Air Traffic Controllers got rules changed for them basically overnight when it came out that they were fatigued, pilots have been waiting for years. It’s all politics, if it was truly about safety the Railroad Act would be looked at, there would be new labor laws concerning fair pay, and I wouldn’t be using my sick and vacation time to cover trips that I end early because the schedule that week is too crazy. I do the right thing and make sure my commute is safe and I call in sick in the middle of a trip if I get too tired to finish it. There are a lot of us who do it right.

    • Jmarker85

      I enjoy poking holes in technically inaccurate claims.  Commercial aircraft (with the obvious exception of the Concorde, which was retired back in 2003) typically cruise between 18,000 and 41,000 feet, as 43,000 feet is oft-regarded as their maximum operating altitude before additional life support equipment would be required for all aboard. 

      I would most certainly be afraid of any pilot willing and able to take our aircraft up to 50,000 feet, considering that flight at that altitude and above requires the use of a pressure suit – I’d be less concerned about the pilot being sleep than about said pilot possibly being insane.  The “air up there” is rarified enough so as to impede controlled flight by reducing the amount of air molecules available to pass over the control surfaces, and oxygen masks alone are not enough to keep the aircraft crew conscious – hence the use of a pressure suit.  The 50,000-60,000 foot range is often described as the maximum operating altitude of fighter jets like the F-16 and F-15, for the previously described reasons. 

      As a sidebar for other aviation nuts out there who might say “What about the SR-71?” remember that the crew are equipped with pressure suits akin to those worn by astronauts, and that the aircraft uses movable aero-spikes protruding from the front of each of its engines to squeeze air molecules together at high altitude to allow the air-breathing engines to stay powered.   

    • Jmarker85

      I enjoy poking holes in technically inaccurate claims.  Commercial aircraft (with the obvious exception of the Concorde, which was retired back in 2003) typically cruise between 18,000 and 41,000 feet, as 43,000 feet is oft-regarded as their maximum operating altitude before additional life support equipment would be required for all aboard. 

      I would most certainly be afraid of any pilot willing and able to take our aircraft up to 50,000 feet, considering that flight at that altitude and above requires the use of a pressure suit – I’d be less concerned about the pilot being sleep than about said pilot possibly being insane.  The “air up there” is rarified enough so as to impede controlled flight by reducing the amount of air molecules available to pass over the control surfaces, and oxygen masks alone are not enough to keep the aircraft crew conscious – hence the use of a pressure suit.  The 50,000-60,000 foot range is often described as the maximum operating altitude of fighter jets like the F-16 and F-15, for the previously described reasons. 

      As a sidebar for other aviation nuts out there who might say “What about the SR-71?” remember that the crew are equipped with pressure suits akin to those worn by astronauts, and that the aircraft uses movable aero-spikes protruding from the front of each of its engines to squeeze air molecules together at high altitude to allow the air-breathing engines to stay powered.   

    • Oenghus

      Dont worry about a s;eepy pilot at 50,000 feet. Worry about a sleepy pilot at 50 feet.

    • shirleyqjj

      Alertness should be remembered everywhere…

    • applecreeker

      I am less concerned about the “near miss” statistics than the “hits”. Nobody died in a near miss and the hits are recorded but not necessarily identified with fatigue as the major contributing cause. All life/death related professions should have sleep deprivation safety measures as part of the training and continuing education processes.
      Not all sleep cycles are dependent upon duration. Someone who learns to go directly to deep sleep (REM) can be more rested after a few hours’ sleep than another person who lingers in a shallow sleep mode for eight hours and is easily interrupted. I would be more confident with a pilot who had sleep training as part of basic flight schooling than with one who had 10 hours between flights but was interrupted by environmental factors like noise, light, etc. Pilots and copilots who alternate sleep during extended flights can extend their “rested’ status and be more attentive when they resume their control mode. Truck drivers do the same with buddy drivers who alternately sleep/drive to keep the rig in motion.There is no “one size fits all” solution to pilot, driver, or doctor/nurse safety rules. Only sufficient preparation will yield proficient and professional pilots, drivers, doctors, lawyers, etc. Education is cheap; ignorance is expensive.
       By the way, has anyone looked into the sleep patterns of our politicians and legislators? They seem to have experienced a lot of “near miss” incidents lately!

      • 731943652

        It look really right.Education is the most important.

    • applecreeker

      I am less concerned about the “near miss” statistics than the “hits”. Nobody died in a near miss and the hits are recorded but not necessarily identified with fatigue as the major contributing cause. All life/death related professions should have sleep deprivation safety measures as part of the training and continuing education processes.
      Not all sleep cycles are dependent upon duration. Someone who learns to go directly to deep sleep (REM) can be more rested after a few hours’ sleep than another person who lingers in a shallow sleep mode for eight hours and is easily interrupted. I would be more confident with a pilot who had sleep training as part of basic flight schooling than with one who had 10 hours between flights but was interrupted by environmental factors like noise, light, etc. Pilots and copilots who alternate sleep during extended flights can extend their “rested’ status and be more attentive when they resume their control mode. Truck drivers do the same with buddy drivers who alternately sleep/drive to keep the rig in motion.There is no “one size fits all” solution to pilot, driver, or doctor/nurse safety rules. Only sufficient preparation will yield proficient and professional pilots, drivers, doctors, lawyers, etc. Education is cheap; ignorance is expensive.
       By the way, has anyone looked into the sleep patterns of our politicians and legislators? They seem to have experienced a lot of “near miss” incidents lately!

    • applecreeker

      I am less concerned about the “near miss” statistics than the “hits”. Nobody died in a near miss and the hits are recorded but not necessarily identified with fatigue as the major contributing cause. All life/death related professions should have sleep deprivation safety measures as part of the training and continuing education processes.
      Not all sleep cycles are dependent upon duration. Someone who learns to go directly to deep sleep (REM) can be more rested after a few hours’ sleep than another person who lingers in a shallow sleep mode for eight hours and is easily interrupted. I would be more confident with a pilot who had sleep training as part of basic flight schooling than with one who had 10 hours between flights but was interrupted by environmental factors like noise, light, etc. Pilots and copilots who alternate sleep during extended flights can extend their “rested’ status and be more attentive when they resume their control mode. Truck drivers do the same with buddy drivers who alternately sleep/drive to keep the rig in motion.There is no “one size fits all” solution to pilot, driver, or doctor/nurse safety rules. Only sufficient preparation will yield proficient and professional pilots, drivers, doctors, lawyers, etc. Education is cheap; ignorance is expensive.
       By the way, has anyone looked into the sleep patterns of our politicians and legislators? They seem to have experienced a lot of “near miss” incidents lately!

    • Ester_madarang

      unbelievable!