Logistics

Asleep at the wheel: The ‘blink and you miss it’ story of accidents

Mamuni Das New Delhi | Updated on September 19, 2019 Published on September 19, 2019

The Railways’ study analysed 63 accidents that took place between 1996 and 2000   -  THE HINDU

‘Microsleep’ episodes among fatigued drivers heighten road risks, notes study

Can a driver’s financial behaviour predict the chances that he will cause an accident?

Yes, if one goes by the findings of a study, which shows that high debtors and gamblers proved to be high-risk drivers, at least in trains.

An involuntary quick nap with eyes open, called microsleep, which results from sleep deficit, may also be a strong trigger for accidents, said Rajiv Agarwal, who studied train accidents for five years. Agarwal, General Manager, North Eastern Railway Zone, believes his findings in respect of train drivers apply to all vehicle drivers.

The findings are important, given that India tops the global accident and fatalities charts. A mission is under way to discipline road transport drivers by sharply increasing penalties for traffic rule violations through the Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Act, 2019.

Agarwal conducted an internal study of 63 accidents that took place between 1996 and 2000 at Mumbai, Central Railway, and interviewed loco pilots.

In 24 out of 63 cases, loco pilots or motormen were observed to be either not taking adequate and proper rest; or involved in gambling or had debts.

Agarwal, however, noted that the number of cases of gambling or debt among loco-pilots was not significant. It may require further research to fully establish the link.

Wake up to microsleep

To make extra money, some long-distance drivers work extra hours; they then fall asleep for extremely short durations — a phenomenon called microsleep, the researcher noted. Microsleep episodes — ranging from one to 30 seconds — are a result of sleep deprivation or mental fatigue and can occur at any time of the day, said Agarwal. Microsleep leads to drivers missing red or alarm signals.

“Sleep deprivation or inadequate sleep or lack of quality sleep results in episodes of microsleep, which is dangerous, particularly for drivers. This aspect is (usually) not in focus at present after an accident has taken place,” he said.

Citing a recent example of a bus accident on the Yamuna Expressway near Agra, in which 29 passengers were killed, Agarwal said the driver, who was not drunk, evidently fell asleep at the wheel. Barely a few kilometres before the accident, the driver had been awake enough to pay highway tolls. The driver had reportedly been doing continuous night duties.

In fact, drivers working long hours to pay off their debt is common in the cab aggregator space. Cab drivers in several States have gone on strike to highlight this issue.

Alertness-altering drugs

The incidence of drivers who had had heavy food or alertness-altering medication also emerged as a serious matter. “Some loco pilots took amphetamines tablets to stay awake, while some take sleeping pills for a sound sleep. Sleeping pills affect a person’s judgement in the waking hours. Some of the loco pilots camouflaged their visual or hearing disabilities for fear of being medically decategorised (effectively losing their jobs). Some drivers had medication or a heavy lunch just before going on duty, which made them drowsy,” noted Agarwal. He said there was a need to focus on drivers’ cognitive abilities, and tests need to be devised to screen the vulnerable drivers. “Also, technical aids are needed to monitor drivers’ attention during driving and to intervene before such a driver causes an accident,” he added.

An overwhelming number of the cases — 57 of the 63 accidents — took place at a time when the weather was clear, indicating some level of complacency among some drivers. A majority of cases happened during daytime, when the traffic was not heavy.

Published on September 19, 2019
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