Police driver fatigue: "Our dirty little secret"

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It happened almost a decade ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was a new sergeant working midnights and I had been up for close to 24 hours. I was approaching my house and could actually see my driveway when it happened. I fell asleep behind the wheel and ended up in a ditch. Luckily no other cars were involved, and I was not hurt. The incident woke me up to the real dangers of fatigue, and while not everyone falls asleep at the wheel, driving a police vehicle while fatigued can create tremendous problems.

How could it happen? How could I see my driveway, knowing I was about to arrive home and fall asleep? The research says that I was more than tired. As the human body fights fatigue, it can fall asleep from a fraction of a second to 10 seconds. This phenomenon known as microsleep is impossible to predict. You could be going 65 mph on a highway in traffic or you could be like me, 100 yards from your house.

In fact, research tells us that officers on six or seven hours of sleep create twice the likelihood of a collision happening, and those on five hours of sleep create five times the likelihood. Officers who have been awake for 18 hours are in a state equivalent to a .05 blood alcohol content, and on three hours of sleep, they are equal to being impaired by alcohol.

Commuting, family obligations, shift work, overtime and extra jobs are all significant contributors to police fatigue. Each one places an officer in grave danger while behind the wheel. An Alertness Solutions survey found that 85 percent of officers reported that they inadvertently fell asleep while on duty. While the work hours for many professionals — such as truck drivers and pilots — are regulated, law enforcement finds itself in the precarious position of few industry standards as well as scattered rules and regulations around the country.


Human fatigue is recognized around the world as being the main cause of accidents in the transportation industry. Countless accidents have been attributed to the effects of fatigue, and at some point law enforcement officers have to ask how it impacts them.

While the investigation is ongoing, the recent death of two bicyclists struck by a Santa Clara County deputy whose cruiser crossed the centerline is potentially attributed to fatigue. A witness told the San Francisco Chronicle that he admitting to falling asleep at the wheel, and while his lawyer has not admitted as much, she did suggest in published reports that fatigue may have been a factor. The deputy had worked more than 12 hours the day before, and he started his shift at 6 a.m. on the day of the accident.

When law enforcement investigates the serious collision of a truck driver, it is not uncommon to reconstruct the last 48 hours of the driver’s activity — including his or her work schedule and sleep pattern. Are law enforcement agencies thinking about fatigue when it comes to their vehicle collisions? Gordon Graham, a retired California Highway Patrol captain and risk manager states emphatically “No.”

“Law enforcement is in denial in reference to fatigue,” Graham says. “We must take responsibility and manage the risk that fatigue poses our law enforcement officers.”

Indeed, many agencies have gone on the offensive when it comes to fatigue.

Policy and procedure

Agencies should review the policies they have in place that could contribute to fatigue. How shifts are scheduled, the rotation of shifts, the consecutive hours and days allowed to work and how many hours of extra jobs in a week an officer can work are all important factors. The 16-8 rule seems to be the most popular. This states that for every 16 hours of work, departments must provide 8 hours of rest time.

In 1998 the Cherry Hill (N.J.) Police Department implemented a mandatory daily rest policy. Capt. Robert Schofield says that the officers are pleased with the policy, and it has served as a measure to keep them from pushing forward with work when ultimately they need to rest. The policy mandates seven consecutive hours of time off in every 24 hour period, and it prohibits officers from working anywhere else during that time frame. Officers are given the ability to notify supervisors if they are unable to complete their duties due to “exhaustion,” and that supervisor must give the officer time off once notified. Capt. Schofield says: “I think the mandatory rest period protects our officers from something tragic.”


Officers need to be aware of the negative effects of fatigue. Good sleep habits, nutrition and fitness all play a factor in combating fatigue. Fatigue should be considered a safety issue in the same way tactical training is. Officers should be taught how to prevent fatigue and how to recognize it before it becomes dangerous.

Paul Elliott, owner and founder of the Elliott Alertness Method, has one of the few training programs for law enforcement in the area of driving fatigue. His training program helps increase blood flow to the brain, thereby increasing neural activity and reducing the effects of fatigue. The training was based on the anti-gravity straining maneuver that modern day fighter pilots utilize to overcome temporary loss of consciousness due to gravity. Elliot describes the issue of fatigue within law enforcement: “Every officer I speak to knows about the issue of fatigue, but they are not given direction on what to do about it. Right now officers don’t know how to recognize fatigue and correct it. They are just tired.” The Elliot Alertness Method, which costs just $3 for online training and takes a mere 6 seconds to perform, has drawn attention from across the country.


Another effective way to combat fatigue is to give officers naps. While you would find pillows in a fair number of cars working nights, you rarely would find an agency authorizing short naps in an effort to increase the alertness and safety of its officers.

Studies have consistently suggested that short naps are very effective with the issue of fatigue. A NASA study showed that when pilots were provided a planned rest period on long flights, performance increased by 34 percent and alertness by 54 percent.

Research from Stanford University studied the effects of napping on 49 physicians and nurses working a 12-hour shift from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. Some of them were allowed to take a short nap on the average of 25 minutes in the middle of their shifts while others were required to stay awake the entire 12 hours. At the end of the shift, the personnel who were given a nap reported that they were less fatigued, and both groups participated in a 40-minute driving simulation exercise. While both groups showed signs of driving impairment after working a 12-hour shift, the group that had a nap showed driving behaviors that were “less dangerous.”

Dr. Mark Rosekind, president and chief scientist of Alertness Solutions, a consulting firm that creates tailored solutions to improve workplace safety in regard to fatigue, agrees that short naps of 40 minutes or less will assist in fighting fatigue.

"Addressing fatigue provides an opportunity to enhance public — and just as importantly, officer — safety," Rosekind says. 

A National Sleep Foundation study found that one-third of businesses surveyed allowed napping during breaks, and 16 percent provided a place to nap for their employees. This is not necessarily the case within law enforcement, but some agencies are recognizing the importance of monitoring and controlling fatigue.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office in Redwood City, Calif., has developed a program that is combating the issue of fatigue. To help deputies working 12-hour shifts, who at the same time are commuting a long way — some out of necessity, as a way to sidestep the rising housing costs in the San Francisco Bay Area — the sheriff’s office has established two locations where deputies can sleep in between shifts. One is located in a residential neighborhood in Redwood City and contains 14 beds. Another is located at one of the department’s substations and has four beds. Lt. Steve Shively describes the program as “very popular” with deputies, and it has benefited the agency. “There is a huge difference between then (before the program) and now. Our deputies spend a lot less time on the road.”

Lombard, Ill., Police Lt. Jim Glennon, a lead instructor for the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar, is a proponent of monitoring the fatigue of officers and ensuring they are not too tired to drive. As the evening shift commander, he encouraged his officers that become tired to come into the station and take a short nap. "We openly discussed the absurdity of having officers driving squad cars while dead tired. Court time, a personal life, meetings and training all result in the loss of much-needed sleep for officers working the overnight shift,” Glennon says. “This is quite simply a reality. It is ridiculous to pretend this doesn't happen or ignore the consequences of limited sleep."

Prevention and recognition

Just like officers are taught how to recognize dangers on the streets, they should be cognizant of the early signs of driving while fatigued. Frequent yawning is an obvious sign that the body is tired, but there are other subtle actions that can alert you to as well.

• Lack of alertness: As you get tired, your alertness diminishes. You may find yourself missing a traffic signal, following cars too closely or simply not remembering the last few miles you have driven.

• Lack of focus: Are your thoughts coherent, or is your mind wandering on things not related to driving? The more tired you are, the more difficult it becomes to stay focused on the task at hand.

• Physical behaviors: Your body is a great indicator on whether you are fatigued. Yawning (as stated above), excessive blinking of the eyes or the feeling of a heavy head indicates fatigue.

What to do?

Every officer knows what helps him or her fight fatigue. It could be another cup of coffee, water to the face, fresh air or getting out of the car and stretching. All of those methods are temporary and only place a Band-Aid on a serious issue.

It is clear that policy, training and short naps can have a positive impact on officers when it comes to fatigue. In seminars, I refer to the issue of police fatigue as “our dirty little secret.” Indeed, many times we drive and respond to critical incidents in conditions that are not optimal for complete success. Often, because we do what we do, we succeed and our bosses consider what we do a complete success. The problem lies when we do not have a successful outcome. We blame training, supervision, tactics or employee errors. At what point do we mention and address fatigue?

For the health and safety of our officers, I hope it is sooner rather that later.

Additional Resources

The Elliot Alertness Method: www.drowsydriver.org

How Sleepy Are You: www.sleepnet.com/sleeptest.html

National Sleep Foundation: www.sleepfoundation.org

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