Road Safety and Sleeping Policemen!

Silhouette of a police car

Browsing through  my Twitter feed I noted a somewhat worrying exchange between two policing followers. The content reminded me of a personally harrowing event during the 1980’s.

I was single crewed in a  police Mini van, during the final couple of hours of a night shift, heading for what I hoped would be the last job of the night. The interior of the windscreen was clad in a thin coating of ice whilst externally, the limp and inadequate wipers were fighting a loosing battle with the blizzard conditions of a midwinter Yorkshire snowstorm. Not even the van heater, something of a misnomer, could make an impression on those freezing conditions.

Suddenly and without any prior warning, I found my van careering towards a large millstone at the side of the road. If not for my shock induced automatism, and a modicum of prompt and nifty driving skill, serious injury or death which had been imminent, was thankfully averted. The millstone may have been placed to support the village nameplate affixed to it however; it was looking like its last job was going to be a tombstone to mark my final resting place… I had fallen asleep at the wheel, an incident which brings me back to that original Twitter exchange.

During the early part of my police career officers usually worked eight-hour shifts, and in my area, night shifts ran from 10pm to 6am. That said, they still got tired. Officers rarely had rest days cancelled, overtime was limited and in general, they always received 2, 3 or 4 days away from work after working for seven. Many police officers today would see those working conditions and shift patterns as luxury!

Sometimes we were also obliged to work night shifts alone and for me, this particular near death experience was one of those shifts. So what if something went wrong and/or you needed assistance? My nearest colleagues were fifteen or more miles away and, although available via radio, their help was dependent upon me being physically able to use it.

But all those years ago being a cop was (arguably) a lot less dangerous than it is today. There were greater levels of public respect for policing. Communities within our society usually displayed deeper social cohesion and importantly, violent criminality was far less apparent. But despite these factors, you were still often left with no doubt about your ultimate vulnerability

But it’s important to consider today’s working conditions. Massive reductions in staffing levels, extended working hours, regular shift deviations and often, a distinct lack of any real ‘recovery time’ between shift patterns. This all means that officer fatigue is probably an even greater issue than it used to be. To be efficient, effective and safe in policing – cops need their rest.

Four in ten police officers suffering from sleep disorders which affects their performance at work…(

Tiredness and sleep disorders are a dangerous, they can result in drivers falling asleep at the wheel of a motor vehicle. These issues of fatigue on driving have been well documented and often, are also addressed by government led accident reduction campaigns. Despite this, many senior police managers have a tendency to almost belittle any police officer who has concerns about fatigue in the workplace. “What’s up lad? Spent your day off on the piss?”

These are often the same senior officers who agree to government designed and/or sponsored, but often politically motivated, road safety initiatives. They are happy to deplete staff from already woefully short response teams, then dedicate those officers to the campaign purpose. It’s usually just about ticking boxes and rhetorical public relations exercises. Ones which hopefully, will benefit the career prospects of the kudos seeking leadership. Something that in turn, the politicians are more than happy about after all, policing is all about pleasing the electorate, isn’t it?

But it’s interesting how so many road safety practitioners (and police officers) often equate the dangers of motor vehicles to those of loaded guns; in the wrong hands, or an incompetent/impaired set of hands, their use can often be fatal. Perhaps that analogy has finally been inextricably linked by medical evidence?

Union reps, trainers, and human behavior experts who have been campaigning to get police fatigue recognized and addressed as a critical professional and public safety problem have been given an armory of ammunition for their battle by a comprehensive and complex new study of cops and sleeping disorders…(Police Firearms Officers Association)

In December 2011 a study by the American Medical Association (AMA) found that “more than 40 per cent of police officers suffer from sleep disorders.” The researchers (rightly) pointed out that the problem has “serious implications for officers’ health” but, in addition to personal performance issues, this obviously also, “poses a threat to public safety.”

Although the research was based in the USA, this must be indicative of a similar problem in the UK. But nearer to home, statistical research here has shown that “almost 20% of accidents on major roads are sleep-related and that sleep-related accidents are more likely than others to result in a fatality or serious injury” (DirectGov).

For many, in particular those who work night shifts, it should be even more worrying that, the peak period of danger is during the early hours of the morning. As the RAC point out in the following clip, “Tiredness can Kill.”

The following animation, produced by AlphabetGB, a vehicle leasing business and part of the BMW group of companies, is part of their ‘Road To Safer Driving’ scheme. These workshops are designed to promote safer driving within their company and those of their customers.

THINK! provides road safety information for road users, on the topic of driver fatigue, the following video is one part of that process.

The Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) also point out in their advice document (INF159) on the subject; “although all drivers are subject to the pressures of modern life, many drivers are unaware that some medical conditions can also cause excessive sleepiness/tiredness.” Another pertinent and well documented medical condition is Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA).

OSA Facts from the DVLA

  • OSA is the most common sleep related medical disorder.
  • OSA significantly increases the risk of traffic accidents.
  • OSA occurs most commonly, but not exclusively, in overweight individuals.
  • OSA sufferers rarely wake from sleep feeling fully refreshed and tend to fall asleep easily when relaxing.
  • Long distance lorry and bus drivers affected by OSA are of great concern as most will be driving on monotonous roads/motorways and the size or nature of the vehicle gives little room for error.
  • Estimates suggest at least four in every hundred men have OSA. Sleep problems arise more commonly in older people.

If you have any ‘medical condition’ that impacts upon your driving ability, including EDS or OSA, you are legally obliged to inform the DVLA about it.

The issues outlined here have absolutely nothing to do with “fat lazy coppers swinging the lead” – despite what our government would have us believe. However, all the rhetorical retorts from politicians and police leadership on “doing more with less” could well come to fruition. Stretching the already taught Thin Blue Line to breaking point means something has to give.

Less police officers (working harder for longer) will ultimately result in more illness, more injury and (sadly) more death. Are we really happy about letting these so-called reforms continue?

Note: Sleep Disorders, Health, and Safety in Police Officers” – Journal of the American Medical Assn (JAMA). A full copy of the 12-page report (see extract) can be ordered as a pdf document for a fee (see here).

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