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Deborah Hersman

NATIONAL SLEEP FOUNDATION — Transportation Safety in Action 5 Minutes with Deborah Hersman Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board.

Fatigue is a significant factor in our nation’s transportation safety. The National Sleep Foundation asked The Honorable Deborah Hersman, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), to explain how it helps keep us safer on the roads and in the air.

Ms. Hersman, thanks for taking the time to answer questions for our readers. First, can you explain a little about the NTSB and what it does?

Making our highways, skies, railways and waterways safer is the NTSB’s mandate. We are an independent, non-regulatory federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in railroad, highway, marine and pipeline. We determine the probable cause and issue safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. The NTSB also conducts safety studies and forums aimed at making transportation safer.

How does the NTSB protect the public?

The NTSB is the safety conscience and compass of the transportation industry. We have the full attention of industry leaders, other government agencies, and policy makers to whom we articulate needed safety improvements and innovations.

The NTSB is an organization that is uniquely situated to think about transportation safety in the ideal and then point the way toward a safer transportation system. Since the Board’s inception in 1967, we have investigated more that 132,000 aviation accidents and thousands of surface transportation accidents and issued almost 13,000 safety recommendations, about 80 percent of which are in the acceptable status.

The NTSB has taken aggressive action in multiple transportation modes to reduce accidents caused by fatigued operators. Can you tell us what you’ve learned about accidents related to fatigue?

We’ve learned that drowsy driving can be deadly, which is why it has been on our Most Wanted List for many years. Solving the problem will require a multi-pronged approach that involves government, industry, and the public. Government regulators need to establish science-based hours of service limits. Employers need to educate their workforce about fatigue risk factors. They also need to design schedules that provide their workers with opportunities for rest, and allow workers to “call-in-fatigued” when necessary. Those who operate vehicles need to take personal responsibility for getting enough quality sleep and not putting themselves or others at risk if they are too sleepy to perform effectively.

Any advice for the average car driver when they are feeling excessively sleepy?

First, don’t start a trip if you are tired. If you feel drowsy while driving, pull over. By the time you feel sleepy, you are probably already impaired. Napping has been shown to have a temporary benefit for alertness, but nothing beats a good night’s sleep.

What could drivers learn from the NTSB about preventing fatigue-related accidents?

The most important things that drivers can do to avoid being involved in a fatigue-related accident are to get enough sleep at night, and to avoid driving during late night and early morning hours when the brain is hard-wired to be asleep. Also, if you are having trouble sleeping or staying alert during the waking hours, talk to your doctor. Finally, avoid driving if you are using any prescription or over-the-counter medications that could cause drowsiness.

Tell us more about your Most Wanted List and how it has improved safety on the road.

The Safety Board’s Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements was introduced in 1990 as a way to emphasize certain recommendations we believe deserve extra attention. Items on our Most Wanted List come from all modes of transportation. We believe our Most Wanted List is a very effective tool. For example, we highlighted drug and alcohol testing in aviation on our Most Wanted List, and now airlines are required to perform pre-employment, random, and post-accident drug and alcohol testing on employees in safety-sensitive positions.

Our Most Wanted List also gets congressional attention. In 2008, we were able to remove from the list recommendations for positive train control and new fatigue regulations for railroads after Congress mandated that the Federal Railroad Administration implement these two important measures. In the highway area of our Most Wanted List, we have added a recommendation asking the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to restrict the use of cellular telephones by commercial motor vehicle drivers. We also added a recommendation asking FMCSA to require on-board electronic recorders to record accident conditions, as well as driver hours of service.