The Night Shift and Driver Safety

Debra Reynolds

Distracted Driving, Drowsy Driving and NegligenceDistracted driving can take many forms. Unfortunately, it is not too uncommon to read news stories about individuals who text while driving resulting in car crashes ranging from minor fender-benders to catastrophic bodily injuries or death. But what about driver fatigue? Our communities may need to be concerned with night shift workers taking the wheel after their shift is over. A recent article  showed that workers on the night shift had impaired driving skills compared to when they worked the day shifts.

Medical residency programs have chronically been plagued with controversy over their working conditions, namely the extended periods of time in the clinical setting that result in alternated sleep patterns and the potentially deleterious effects on safe performance of daily activities, including driving a motor vehicle. To some, this might beg the question if they have impaired skills driving a vehicle, what does that say about their skills for medical diagnosis and treatment of the patient? Have you ever seen this listed as a risk on a consent form? In 2003 and 2011, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education initiated duty hour limitations to increase safe learning and care. The authors of the article wanted to know, aside from extended shifts, whether working consecutive night shifts causes an impairment of one’s driving skills. The authors had twenty-nine anesthesiology resident physicians drive for 55 minutes in a driving simulator (at a driver safety laboratory using the Driver Guidance System).

In a rigorous study, the authors found that after six consecutive night shifts, residents experienced:

  • significantly impaired control of all the driving variables including speed, lane position, throttle, and steering;
  • significant delays in reaction times;
  • significant increases in the episodes of both minor and major lapses in attention; and,
  • residents were more likely to be involved in a collision.

When unsafe choices are made that make an occurrence more likely than not to happen, negligence and liability come in to play when someone is harmed as a result. Perhaps we could envision scenarios where driving while fatigued could lead to vehicular assault or even homicide. Employers and organizations of night shift workers could explore policies that would reduce the risk of night shift drivers including further limits on working nights, shuttle services, driver services, and adequate staffing to provide for periods of respite during a shift. Moreover, these same employers and organizations could glean from the U.S. Department of Transportation and how they address fatigued truck drivers. Regardless, our communities should work together to continue to be vigilant with laws and enforcement against any form of distracted driving, furthering the effort to reduce auto accidents and injuries.