Drowsy Driving: Are Employers Responsible?
Many people are familiar with regulations such as the Dram Shop Laws which hold owners responsible for injuries, car accidents and deaths caused by intoxicated patrons. These types of regulations are put in place to reduce the number of unsafe drivers on the road, but what about other types of impairment such as drowsy driving? Every year approximately 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of drivers falling asleep at the wheel. The question now becomes, are businesses and employers responsible for their employees’ driving fatigue, and are they doing enough to prevent drowsy driving?
Matt Theurer was an enthusiastic 18-year old, part-time employee at McDonald’s. Theurer was a senior in high school and also part of the National Guard. When time came to do a special annual cleaning project for his employer Matt readily volunteered to stay late and help. Theurer had already worked five nights that week, leaving at midnight, 11:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. This fell within McDonald’s informal work policy which stated that high school students were not to work past midnight more than once per week unless it was a weekend. This safeguard was put in place to reduce exhaustion amongst high school employees and allow them to commute home safely after their shifts.
On the Tuesday evening (following Theurer’s midnight shift the previous day) he worked his regular shift from 3:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m. and then volunteered to stay late and pick-up a shift from 12:00 a.m. - 5:00 a.m. to make up for a missing employee. Theurer then proceeded to work another shift from 7:00 a.m. - 8:21 a.m. before asking to be excused to drive home. During his 20-minute commute home, Theurer fell asleep at the wheel. Traveling at 45 mph he crossed into oncoming traffic on the two-lane road and crashed into another vehicle. Theurer was killed upon impact and the driver of the other vehicle was severely injured. Should McDonald’s be held responsible? The court thought so. It ultimately ruled that McDonald’s was liable for Theurer’s actions.
There are several resources available for employers in order to promote safe driving and responsible commuting for their workers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has materials available through their Wake Up and Get Some Sleep campaign which includes an employer handbook, rules, posters, training videos and more.
The National Transportation Safety Board is also focusing their efforts on eliminating impaired driving due to sleep depravation with their upcoming Highway Safety Forum: Awake, Alert, Alive: Overcoming the Dangers of Drowsy Driving on October 21, 2014. The second panel will focus exclusively on workplace issues associated with fatigued driving.
It’s time that employers wake up and smell the coffee. Drowsy driving accidents are 100% preventable. Until our workplace culture changes to reflect the importance of a good night’s sleep, we will continue to experience unnecessary loss and injury for the sake of a few more hours and a few more dollars.