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Greyhound Bus Crash: Fatigued Driving Tragedy?

Reports from the CHP regarding this tragic bus collision last week in San Jose resulting in 2 deaths and serious injuries, suggest that the driver may have been fatigued. It is well established that fatigue can be a risk to the safe operation of a motor vehicle. Efforts to reduce the risks posed by fatigue from inadequate sleep duration, quality and timing have been the focus of initiatives at the National Transportation Safety Board, Department Transportation, Department of Defense, and the National Institutes of Health.

There is extensive scientific evidence demonstrating that fatigue associated with sleepiness occurs as a result of the physiological consequences of inadequate sleep, prolonged wakefulness, and being awake at a circadian time that the brain is programmed to sleep. These factors can co-occur to produce and amplify fatigue and its effect on behavior. An evaluation of the extent to which fatigue was likely to have contributed to this or any accident therefore requires evaluation of information on the timing of sleep and wakefulness.

In addition to identifying whether the antecedents of fatigue were present relative to an accident, the behavior of someone involved in an accident must be evaluated for the extent to which it is consistent with scientific knowledge on the manner in which fatigue physiologically affects the ability to perform certain tasks. There is extensive scientific evidence that fatigue resulting from lost sleep can make it difficult to remain awake, alert and attentive.

Research sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that driving drowsy results in a 4-6 times higher near-crash/crash risk relative to driving alert, and drowsy driving had a higher crash risk than distracted driving.

Fatigue reduces the ability to sustain attention and focus on a task, to think and react quickly, to appreciate what is happening, and take action to avoid an error or accident before it is too late.

When sleep is inadequate it results in increasing slow eyelid closures and involuntary, sudden and unpredictable lapses in performance. These lapses can be frequent, prolonged and uncontrollable, depending on the degree of sleep loss within and between days.

Research has shown that drivers experience sleepiness and struggle with it, but they are not always able to accurately judge the severity of the sleepiness relative to the risk it poses to their performance. The inability to stop the occurrence of fatigue-related performance lapsing, or frank sleep onsets while driving, is the reason that motor vehicle crashes associated with sleepy driving are often (1) single vehicle, (2) roadway departure at highway speed, and (3) lacking evidence of corrective action before the vehicle impacts another object. These factors may explain why the fatality rate for sleep-related crashes is near to that found for alcohol-related accidents.

There is considerable scientific work that equates the performance deficits induced by varying degrees of sleep loss to the performance deficits induced by varying blood alcohol concentrations. For example, 18 hours of wakefulness in healthy adults produced psychomotor performance deficits equal to those present when blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is .05%. Twenty-two 22 hours of wakefulness produced psychomotor performance deficits equal to 0.8% BAC.

It is too early to know the details regarding the sleep history for this particular driver but surely the discovery in this future litigation will delve deeply into these issues. Driving fatigued is just as bad as driving drunk.

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