Many a seasoned motorist, and probably some young ones, too, can identify with the symptoms of “highway hypnosis,” which appear to have been behind Sunday’s fatal Metro-North train wreck.
It’s easy enough to “zone out” when you’re behind the wheel, and easier still on a lonely stretch of highway, when it’s cold and dark outside but warm inside, and when you’re not fully awake to begin with. To some degree, train engineer William Rockefeller may have been wrestling with all three obstacles when he failed to negotiate a sharp curve on the tracks outside New York City Sunday morning, and it’s hard to not be a little sympathetic with his plight. (This is assuming, as initial reports indicate, that he wasn’t drunk or on drugs, or talking or texting on a cellphone.)
Sleep, or “nodding out,” occasionally happens at inopportune times — whether you’re behind the wheel of a car or truck, or at the controls of an airplane or train. Sometimes, you snap out of it before something bad happens, sometimes you don’t. And it’s hard — especially when you’re not fully there to begin with — to realize you’ve gone past the point of no return and need to pull over for an immediate nap, cup of coffee or to switch drivers. It can happen even if you haven’t been drinking and have gotten an decent night’s sleep.
Obviously, the rules are quite different for a professional truck driver, engineer or pilot, because they are responsible for many lives. The challenge may be much the same — knowing when they’re too tired to continue — and the system mostly relies on human judgment, which is subject to fallibility. But quick, easy fixes like coffee and high-caffeine energy drinks can be taken at the first sign of trouble, so there can be no excuses.
Tragically, the technology already exists that would have spared the Metro-North train its fate — basically, an auto pilot that slows the train on sharp curves, among other things, if the engineer fails to — and is being implemented on trains around the country. In fact, it will be mandatory for all passenger trains and those carrying dangerous chemicals, in 2015 — unless Congress bows to political pressure to delay implementation. The Metro-North accident should convince it not to.