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What you have in common with air traffic controllers: sleep deprivation

Well-publicized incidents of air traffic controllers and others sleeping at inappropriate times point us to science that suggests most people need at least eight hours of sleep a night.

April 21, 2011

There seems to be an epidemic of under-sleeping these days. This year alone, seven air traffic controllers have been caught sleeping on duty. In two well-publicized cases, pilots were heard nearly pleading with control towers to guide them in. (The planes landed safely.) The most recent incident occurred Saturday, when a controller was observed sleeping at a Florida tower. (He did not miss any calls from pilots.) In response, the FAA has adjusted controllers' schedules and mandated that additional controllers be assigned during sleepy midnight shifts. Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Los Angeles/Ontario International Airport in Ontario and San Diego International — among 27 airports nationwide with a single controller on duty during the midnight shift — will be assigned more controllers.

Of course, they're not the only workers who get so fatigued that they fall asleep on the job. In 2007, a videotape was released of guards sleeping on duty at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant. In 2008, two pilots flying a small commercial jet from Honolulu to Hilo fell asleep and overshot the airport by 15 miles before returning and landing safely. Less dangerously — except, perhaps, in terms of his image — Vice President Joe Biden was seen either briefly nodding off or meditating as he sat in the audience at President Obama's speech on the deficit last week.

A sleep study cited in the New York Times on Sunday says the overwhelming majority of people need eight hours of sleep. Not seven. Eight. And most of those who get less and think they're operating fine on it turn out to be too sleep-deprived to realize how sleep-deprived they are.

It's tough to make sleep a priority when juggling job responsibilities, family obligations, gym workouts and social engagements. But more than that, there's a certain who-needs-sleep bravado in our culture. When he was first elected mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa bragged that he went to bed after midnight and was up at 5 for a morning hike. Medical residents proudly recount how little sleep they get. On a TV reality show a few years ago, contestants aspiring to work for music mogul and entrepreneur Sean "P. Diddy" Combs breathlessly embraced their idol's mantra that "sleep is forbidden." President Clinton famously slept little. President Reagan, on the other hand, famously got lampooned for sleeping too much.

Fortunately for them, high-ranking elected officials and entertainment titans who brag about not sleeping get chauffeured around. The rest of us have to drive ourselves. For our own safety, instead of glorifying how little sleep we get, we should make eight hours a night a point of pride.

Just sleep on it.

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