The National Transportation Safety Board’s announcement yesterday that the sole air traffic controller on duty the morning of the crash of Comair Flight 5191 was trying to function on only two hours of sleep in the prior 24 hours and yet was within compliance with existing FAA work hour regulations reveals the inadequacy of current FAA regulations. This revelation should serve as a clarion call for the FAA to develop new work hour policies that prohibit controllers who are impaired by sleep loss or deprivation from directing air traffic at our nation’s airport.

“Acute sleep deprivation of this magnitude induces impairment that is comparable to that of an individual who has just drunk three shots of whiskey in the prior hour,” said Charles A. Czeisler, PhD, MD, president of the Sleep Research Society Foundation and chair on Sleep Research Society Presidential Task Force on Sleep and Public Policy. “No one should be entrusted with the lives of the public if they have only had two hours of sleep in the past 24 hours.”

Sleep deprivation is a common result of rotating shift work schedules especially when limited time off between shifts occurs during the evening hours when it is most difficult to sleep. The tragedy at Lexington occurred at the peak time of day (near 6 am) at which the risk of sleep-related motor vehicle accidents is greatest on the nation’s highways. In fact data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration indicate more than 80,000 individuals falling asleep at the wheel each day and that there are 250,000 sleep-related motor vehicle accidents every year. It is estimated that 20% of all serious transportation injuries on the nation’s highways are related to sleep.