December 12 2013
photo by Reuters/MTA
This commentary appeared on Newsday on December 11, 2013.
The recent derailment of a Manhattan-bound passenger train that killed four people and injured more than 70 appears to have been caused by fatigue. The engineer has said he slipped into “a daze” and neglected to apply the brakes as the train approached a curve at deadly speed.
To sleep researchers, this sounds like an episode of “microsleep,” commonly referred to as “highway hypnosis.” The tragedy underscores a decades-old debate about sleep: how much is enough and whether shift regulations for transit and other similar workers should be updated. Getting adequate sleep may be seen as a luxury, given our hectic lifestyles, but it's actually a critical safety issue. Though highway hypnosis may enter the public discourse most often when it's cited as the possible cause of a disaster like the Metro-North train wreck, it is responsible for fatal accidents on American highways every day.
Microsleeps are brief, unintended episodes of loss of attention and lack of responsiveness to the environment, lasting as little as a few seconds or as long as a few minutes. They occur most often when fatigued people fight to stay awake during the performance of monotonous tasks like driving a car, watching a computer screen or, terrifyingly, monitoring air traffic. Those who have accumulated “sleep debt” — whether because they haven't slept enough or they've slept poorly — are at heightened risk. Sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea are frequent contributing factors.