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Back to Archives | Back to June 2010 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Fatigue and the Police Vehicle Operator

Earl M. Sweeney, Commissioner, New Hampshire State Liquor Commission, and IACP Highway Safety Committee Chair

ncreasingly, the United States is described as a sleep-deprived society. Americans are always seemingly on the go—no longer from dawn until dusk, but well into the night. When compared with European nations, Americans have longer work weeks, receive less vacation time, and put in more overtime at work.

As the U.S. labor force transitioned from an industrial economy to a service economy, many now leave work at the end of a shift with full briefcases and use a Wi-Fi or VPN connection to remain tethered to their offices or headquarters throughout the evening.

The pursuit of the American dream that includes owning high-definition televisions, boats, timeshares, and funding increasingly out-of-reach college educations for children inspires many law enforcement officers to bid off midnight shifts so they can volunteer for lucrative overtime details on road construction jobs and other special duty assignments, or hold down part-time civilian jobs. Proactive and productive evening shift performers often are unable to sleep during the day because of the need to testify in contested court cases. Others with families have spouses who work opposite shifts so the officer can provide childcare while the other parent is at work. In rural areas, some officers engage in farming on the side and must care for livestock despite having worked a busy shift the night before.

In metropolitan areas, officers who either cannot afford to or who choose, for quality-of-life issues, not to reside in the cities where they work may have an end of shift commute of several hours before they reach their suburban homes. Some departments, particularly those in large communities where staffing permits, have adopted unusually long shift hours to provide more overlap during busy periods and to give officers more days off in a row. Older officers in particular may be more prone to fatigue during these longer than eight-hour shifts.

The downside to all this is the natural circadian rhythm to which the human body is attuned is disrupted. Medical evidence has shown that people who fail to get a full six to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep are more prone to heart disease, weight control issues, and other maladies, and may live shorter lives after they retire.

Increasingly, traffic investigators note fatal and serious injury crashes caused by drivers who are sleepy or who fall asleep at the wheel. Tragically, police officers are not immune to the effects of sleep deprivation. Not only are they more prone to becoming involved in collisions and other mishaps in their department-owned vehicles, but they also are more liable to crash their personal vehicles. They are less alert, more apt to experience heightened “startle” reflexes, and more likely to overlook danger signs during high-risk encounters. Supervisors often say these officers are more likely to be cranky and short-tempered and the subject of more comportment complaints from their supervisors and the public.

Police leaders have an obligation to recognize and deal with this problem. A variety of tools exist to mitigate the risk. Training programs that raise officer awareness of the problem and promote more healthful lifestyles with diet, exercise, and good sleep habits are a good first step. Supervisors should be trained to detect and deal with sleep-deprived officers on their squads. Changes in work schedules and collaborative efforts with the court system to schedule trials
around officers’ days off can help.

Policies that place a cap on the number of overtime hours an officer can work during a pay period or mandating a certain number of hours off between shifts may be in order. For example, airline pilots and long-haul truckers have lived with a restriction on hours worked for years. However, historically, labor unions balk at any restriction on the ability of officers to work unlimited overtime hours, even in places where tales exist of older officers who literally “worked themselves to death” in an effort to enhance their final retirement allowances, which are typically based on an average of the last two or three years of work before retirement. To be successful in addressing the problem of fatigue, agencies need to convince union leadership that this is a quality-of-life problem for the officers and their families.

It’s time to recognize the problem, and gather and analyze the data—both hard numbers and anecdotal—and begin to systematically address it, if only with baby steps at first. The lives and safety of officers and the public depend on the attention provided by the police leadership. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 6, June 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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