06/05/2012 11:27 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

Asleep at the Wheel

Just as the country gears up for a summer trip, the National Sleep Foundation released the 2012 Sleep in America poll, its first survey of transportation professionals sleep habits and work performance. The results are not reassuring.

The poll used a sample of 1,087 adults with 292 non-transportation workers serving as controls, 202 pilots, 203 truck drivers, 180 rail workers, and 210 bus, taxi and limo drivers.

Let's cut to the chase. Twenty-three percent of pilots and 26 percent of train operators acknowledged that sleepiness affected their job performance at least once a week. When they said "affected," this includes admitting that they made a serious error that compromised the safety of passengers. Eighteen percent of train operators and 14 percent of truck drivers confided that they have experienced "near misses" as a result of sleepiness.

We live in a sleep-deprived culture where professionals routinely brag about how little sleep they need. But to put these statistics in perspective, transportation workers seem to be getting less shut-eye than the general public. While about one in four train operators (26 percent) and pilots (23 percent) report that sleepiness has affected their job performance at least once a week, about one in six (17 percent) of non-transportation workers do, by comparison. And of course the consequences of a pilot nodding off at the wrong moment are somewhat unique.

So the public is putting their life in the hands of people who are less well rested than your average worker. The study reported 57 percent of train operators and 50 percent of pilots claimed they rarely or never get a good night's sleep on work nights. And that's only half the story. The survey also revealed that pilots and train operators have six times as many car accidents commuting to and from work compared to non-transportation workers.

Part of the problem is the transportation system itself. Forty-four percent of train operators and 37 percent of pilots report that they do not have enough sleep time because of their schedule. Again, this is much higher than the average non-transportation worker (27 percent). Schedules often change weekly, not allowing the establishment of normal sleep-wake cycles. This compromises the quality of their sleep and diminishes their ability to be alert on the job. Only 6 percent of pilots report working the same schedule each day. Again, to put this in context, 76 percent of non-transportation workers enjoy the benefits of an unchanging routine.

Are You Getting Enough Sleep?

The National Sleep Foundation used the Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS), and so can you. The test is routinely administered by sleep specialists and considered an accurate instrument for measuring daytime sleepiness. It distinguishes your run-of-the-mill yawns from something requiring intervention. The likelihood of dozing off in eight different settings is rated on a 0-3 scale, 0 being "would never doze" and 3 being "high chance of dozing."

If you're curious whether the quantity or quality of your sleep is adequate, take the test.

For more by Paul Spector, M.D., click here.

For more on sleep, click here.