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Who’s flying your plane? (2/7/11)

February 7, 2011

When Your Pilot Falls Asleep – and Locks the Door

Sometimes folks fall asleep and you can’t wake them up – not for quite a while.  When it’s your SAS pilot flying you from Copenhagen to Stockholm, it does provoke comment.

Last year, as reported by Fran Golden in AOL Health, a short hop, one hour flight between the glorious Scandinavian capitals took a twist.  As the co-pilot went to the loo, his pilot fell asleep. Returning, the co-pilot kept ringing the doorbell of the armored cockpit door. Nothing happened.  Frantic, he finally got back inside, at which point the pilot started to awake but remained  “disoriented” for an unspecified period.

The pilot later explained it was the fourth of five short flights he was scheduled for that day, and had only had four hours sleep the night before.  He was not disciplined for his lapse.

The incident is reminiscent of last year’s famous debacle where an American pilot and co-pilot were so intent on arguing about their schedules (pilots really don’t get enough sleep) that they kept the autopilot on and flew hundreds of miles out of their path, finally turning around near San Diego after air traffic controllers feared a terrorist attack.

Airplanes have autopilots.  What kind of autopilot does your car have?





People fall asleep all the time.  They fall asleep driving their cars.  Often they were not aware they were asleep until they wake up.

This phenomenon is called microsleeps.  There are different definitions, but generally an EEG defined sleep pattern of 3-15 seconds is considered consensually right.

With the different criteria come different numbers.  Most people are not wired up with EEGs while they’re driving, and getting proper control conditions for any study is difficult. Instead, driving simulation studies are made.

When Americans are asked if they ever fall asleep at the wheel, close to half will admit that it has “sometime” happened.

Yet that does not include the many unaware they fell asleep.


Are You Awake?

Couples often bicker about relative sleepiness.  “You were asleep!” a wife may tell her sleepy husband – “No, I was awake!”

Frequently they are both right.

The classic study was performed by Timothy Roehrs and Leon Rosenthal at Henry Ford Hospital.  People in the sleep lab were allowed to remain sleep in stage 1 sleep for 10 full minutes.

At the end, half said they were awake the whole time.

People are often poor judges of whether they are awake or not.  Many microsleeps occur among drivers who are completely oblivious to the fact they fell asleep. On the highway you’ll go about 100 meters in three seconds of unconsciousness.  That’s not long enough for many to know they were asleep.

The people driving next to them may be aware, though – if they’re not communicating on their cellphones.


Paying Attention to Attention

In Florida, where I live, it’s perfectly legal, certainly socially acceptable, to drive with a cellphone plastered to your ear.  As I’ve written in these pages, on the day before last Thanksgiving a driver backed up nearly the whole block where my office is located, flying by her SUV, thoroughly unconcerned that I happened to be walking in the middle of the road.  She then turned, again driving backwards, into the parking lot and kept on moving. And yakking on her phone.

She never saw me.

Cell phone drivers have about four times the accidents as people driving without cell phones.

Cell phone texting is a different animal.  Truckers who texted had 23 times the accident rate.

About half of young drivers text while they drive.

Do the math.  With over 40,000 people dying each year on American roads, that’s a pretty big epidemic we produce.  I’m not adding in the tens of thousands maimed for life.


Public Health Versus Personal Health


People become incensed when pilots are found asleep at the controls of a plane.  Social psychologists say that much of the anger arrives because this form of  travel is not under their control –  they’re at the mercy of whoever is flying the plane.

That’s not true when you drive a car.  Yet drivers text, eat, read the newspaper, and fix their hair while driving.

Pilots don’t.

Aircraft fly under long established protocols due to their risks of flight.  The end result is, according to the Economist, is that for 3 out of the last 4 years there were no commercial flight fatalities in the U.S.

So what protocol do you follow when you twist into the seat of your car?  Do you determine that you are fully awake and alert enough to drive?  Have you checked that your vehicle is absolutely driveworthy – despite the shaky economy and the size of your paycheck?

Do you turn on the lights at the proper time?  Signal to other drivers every time you make a turn, so they will know where you’re going?  Check for pedestrians and bicycles on both sides when you make a right turn?

I’m afraid to think how many people actually follow such a protocol while driving.

But we love the open road.  A car is one’s castle.  If manufacturers have their way, your next car will have better internet and entertainment systems than many homes.

Tens of thousands were killed driving last year.

Nobody died in a commercial plane flight.

Your driving is under your control.  Please remember – the rest of us are on the road with you.

Rest, sleep, Sarasota Sleep Doctor, well-being, regeneration, longevity, body clocks, insomnia, sleep disorders, the rest doctor, matthew edlund, the power of rest, the body clock, psychology today, huffington post, redbook, longboat key news

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