Lynne Curry: Drowsy bus driver needs to pull over, get help

Lynne Curry

Q. I drive a bus -- and I hope you never ride on it.

Even though I don't drink coffee or alcohol, I can't ever get to sleep at night. That means when I show up for my shift, I'm functioning on three or at most four hours of sleep. I'm always tired and have gotten used to it but dread the day my reflexes won't be fast enough to handle some lunatic driver.

Do I tell my boss or not? If I tell, what happens to me? Will they automatically fire me?


A. Stop playing Russian roulette with your and others' lives. Traffic accidents rank number one among workplace fatalities.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, more than 750 people die and 20,000 more are injured each year due directly to fatigued commercial vehicle drivers. Drowsiness slows reaction time as much as driving drunk. Sleep deprivation factored into the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 1970 Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.

You need to get help and tell your boss. As you may fear, it could cost you your job -- because your company can't let you endanger yourself and others.

Although you may be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act as recently amended, you still need to perform the essential duties of your job -- transporting your passengers competently and safely. "Even if drowsiness was somehow a disability or a symptom of a disability," says lawyer Britton Weimer, "it is a fundamental job expectation for a driver to be awake and alert. There is no 'reasonable accommodation' for a driver who cannot fulfill that essential requirement. Thus they won't keep you as a driver unless you can promptly correct your condition."

You're not alone in this challenge. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50 million to 70 million American adults suffer from sleep and wakefulness disorders. reports that 60 percent of adult drivers have driven while drowsy, with 37 percent or 103 million people falling asleep at the wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that fatigue causes more than 1,550 crash-related deaths annually.

Given the depth of your sleep deprivation, you need treatment. Multiple studies indicate that sleep-deprived workers make more mistakes, poorer decisions and engage in riskier behavior.

Fortunately, if you have sleep apnea, it can be treated. Further, you may find your employer willing to accommodate you with time off to get your problem diagnosed and treated.

If you had only minor sleep deprivation, simpler strategies might work. These include establishing a regular relaxing routine, such as soaking in a hot bath, to transition between waking and sleep; avoiding exercise, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and eating for at least two to three hours before bedtime; allowing enough time for sleep; napping when you can and learning to lie quietly without your eyes closed, which can be restorative and a short-term solution to sleep deprivation.

Finally, according to litigator-turned-HR-consultant Rick Birdsall, you cannot continue as you are. "Operating vehicles in a sleep-deprived condition meets the definition of 'negligence.' If something happens and you knew it might, you could be personally liable -- not to mention the further loss of sleep you will incur if others are injured or killed because of it."

Says Birdsall, "If you want to continue driving buses, get treated. If you get treated and start getting effective sleep, I see no reason you can't continue as a driver. Besides, doesn't a good night's sleep sound wonderful?"


Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10.



Lynne Curry