Everyone Jump Aboard the Sleep Train

Planes, trains and automobiles are a (wo) man's best friend, but not the best place to grab your zzzzs.  Lisa Mercurio takes a closer look at sleep in the news, a hotbed of controversy, as more and more tragic headlines are attributed to sleep or rather, a lack of it. 


It might have read, “Metro North Train Operator Loses Control.  Faulty Brakes Cited.”  I half expected to hear that the conductor of a Metro North train heading early Sunday morning out of Poughkeepsie into New York City’s Grand Central Station was texting while driving, or, that he had had a substance abuse problem.  When it emerged approximately 24 hours later that William Rockefeller “nodded off,” all that came to mind was, sleep makes headlines one more time. Here comes yet another stark reminder of the need for sleep and the terrible fate of the sleep deprived and much too often, those around them.

While all details regarding the train and the circumstances surrounding the crash remain somewhat inconclusive, the train’s conductor was said to have had ample opportunity for a good night’s sleep, but what exactly does that mean?

Falling asleep at the wheel can have tragic consequences.  The 2003 operator of the Staten Island Ferry fell asleep at the controls causing the boat to slam into the dock killing 11.  Just this summer, two pilots of a British Airways Airbus 330 fell asleep while the plane was on autopilot.  Pilot and co-pilot were both victims of sleep deprivation having had only five hours each in two nights.  While their intention was to alternate sleeping hours at 35,000 feet, inevitably, Mother Nature intervened and demanded simultaneous sleep time from both men.  In essence, they “stole,” their zzzs while the plane’s computers and engines hummed along with the passengers.’

It is well documented that while one can certainly attempt to drive while suffering from sleep-deprivation, it is as dangerous as driving while legally drunk.  In effect, many of the high profile accidents seen in recent history can be traced to sleep deprivation: from notable mass transit incidences such as Metro North to the grounding of the Exxon Valdez and even the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island Nuclear Accidents. 

What exactly is “a good night’s sleep,” or rather, “opportunity,” for sleeping?  Certainly the “time off” allocated between shifts for shift workers and everyone else is not used simply for sleep.  Many folks work additional jobs in slated “off hours” intended for sleep, tending to family responsibilities and, life at large.  Many others consciously decide that the thing to suffer will in fact be their sleep time and make informal plans to catch a nap and/or doze off any place they possibly can, some other time.  More commonly, many of us intend to catch up on our sleep on the weekend, our days off or even in a movie theater, concert or similar quiet venue.  But is it really possible and did the Metro North train’s conductor really have opportunity for a good night’s sleep?

While a single, good night’s sleep is most certainly refreshing, deep fatigue and cumulative exhaustion cannot be cured with a single solid seven, eight or even nine hour night.  Becoming fully rested is something that takes place over time, ritualistically and with commitment.  Prioritizing sleep is essential to our health; one of the three pinnacles of our well being along with nutrition and exercise.  It’s a change of public perception that needs to come about.  “The Sleep Movement,” as we call it at Bedtime Network, needs to take on an even higher level of awareness, one that today’s leading sleep doctors can only wish for.   Weill Cornell Sleep Center’s Dr. Daniel Barone had this to say: “Since sleep is a young area of science, as time goes on, I’d like to see it recognized more and more in the public eye, in the education of doctors and medical schools, so that real people become more cognizant of how important sleep is, not only for day-to-day health, but for the chronic problems it can yield: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart issues.  I would hope that the need for sleep becomes as prevalent as the knowledge that smoking is bad for you.  This is my hope for the future.”

Everyone jump aboard the sleep train.  No, not at Penn Station but rather, the one waiting for you in your own bedroom.

Go to bed now.  Sleep tight and good night.