Wake up and get some sleep

We travelled to New York to discover how drivers stay alert behind the wheel in the city that never sleeps.

Impaired reaction time, judgment and vision. These are just some of the effects of drowsy driving. And anyone who has to drive tired – whether it's on the job or driving home late – is at risk. So what can we do to detect and combat drowsy driving? To find out we had to go to the experts. And who better than the taxi drivers of New York – the city that never sleeps.

New York, New York

New York. Like a shark you need to keep moving to survive. The city is dirty. Loud. And alive with the endless possibilities that inspire songs and movies. With so much to do, it’s no wonder people don’t sleep. But a lack of sleep has been linked to everything from unhealthy lifestyles to erratic behaviour and dangerous driving. Getting enough ZZZs is the key to staying focused and productive. Never more so if your job is to drive a taxi all day or all night.

Taxi!

I zigzagged across the city talking to drivers about how they manoeuvre their vehicles as safely as possible. Some of them work 14 hours a day, and while they try to keep the hours in check, financial pressure and app-based taxi services make it hard. The current law restricts them to 12-hour shifts, but their hours reset to zero the moment they take a break of any length. “We don’t choose to work long hours, we do it because of the economic situation,” my first driver of the day tells me. “You don’t make money by standing still, it’s all about the mileage”, he continues. 
Yet standing still, or stuck, is mostly what we do. In a car. In traffic. Between vehicles, commuters, tourists and skyscrapers towering above us. Perhaps the question is not when but where do they take their breaks in a city where space is the real currency? Heading down Lexington Avenue, my driver points out some of the relief stands the city has to offer. But with 14,000 yellow cabs in Manhattan alone, they are hard to come by, which is why some drive to the airports in order to get a good rest. 
Before travelling to NYC I talked rest and driving safety with Mikael Ljung Aust, Driver behaviour specialist at Volvo Cars. He says that after spending a long time behind the wheel, it’s difficult to know how much recovery you’ll need before it’s safe to continue driving. “A coffee and a 15-minute power nap is a good starting point. But it all depends on how much driving you have left.” Volvo Cars’ drowsiness research focuses on two perspectives: how to make people act earlier on signs of sleepiness and how to detect if a driver is no longer in control of the car and needs help to avoid a potential collision. “It’s hard to predict exactly when a person will fall asleep, even in a lab with strict monitoring,” says Mikael. That’s why Volvo Cars focuses equally on developing preventive safety as well as protective systems.

Stop for a cup of joe

So, how do New York’s cab drivers know when it’s time to take a break? My driver from last night explained that whenever he feels his eyes start to twitch, he pulls over and takes a nap – no matter where he is. He relies on himself to recognise the signs of fatigue. But, as Mikael says, “It’s not always easy to know when you are just a little tired or if you are too tired to drive. Not only that, you don’t make your best decisions when you’re tired.” 
Although the driver always bears responsibility, a “co-pilot” improves your chances of getting home safely. Cameras, lasers and radar monitor both the car’s movement and the driver’s behaviour to alert, assist and wake up drowsy drivers. One of these alerts is the “coffee cup”. You’ve probably seen it appear in your car's information display. But chances are you linked it to your driven miles and not the way you’re driving. The engineering behind it is way smarter – your driving is actually matched with a special algorithm that simulates a drowsy driver. It can even tell you where it’s safe to pull over. Coffee anyone?

Let’s change culture

Companies are recognising that, in today's offices, break rooms are just as important as conference rooms. For taxi drivers, their entire workspace is their cars. They read the news waiting for red to turn green, eat lunch parked next to sidewalks – with people not always respecting the off-duty sign. It’s a stressful environment and stress causes people to sleep less. Along with the cigarettes, caffeine and catnaps to stay alert, that seems a risky approach. 
It brings up a big question: Should people really have the responsibility for transporting others? Airline pilots switch on autopilot just after take-off and keep it on until the final approach to reduce workload and ensure the safest, most comfortable flight for the passengers. And on the road we know most accidents are caused by the human factor. The latest Volvo cars come equipped with an advanced semi-autonomous drive feature, which is a step towards a future with driverless cars. 
Driverless cars may be the future, and a safer one at that, but a driver gave me his two cents on my ride out to Brooklyn. “If you replace people with technology you must take care and provide all those men and women with something else worthwhile doing.” When it was time to step out of the taxi, I asked him what was the best thing about being a professional driver. “Meeting people”, he said. And perhaps that’s where the future of these drivers lies, not just as drivers but as the tourist guides, comedians, political experts and therapists that make travelling and talking with them such a unique experience? After all, they are already the unofficial ambassadors of New York City. 

In any case, a fully autonomous reality is perhaps a human generation away. But until then we need to wake up, get some proper sleep and put an end to drowsy driving. 

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