Is Fatigue a Fact of Life for Rideshare Drivers?

by Terry Bryant

The next time an Uber or Lyft rideshare driver picks you up, you might ask him or her when’s the last time they slept, and for how long. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), fatigue and sleepiness are “inherent safety risks” for ridesharing drivers and their passengers.

That conclusion was the opening statement in a new position paper by the AASM. They are asking that ridesharing companies, medical professionals, government officials, and law enforcement view driver fatigue as a public safety risk, starting with the largely unregulated rideshare industry. Since these drivers are independent contractors, the Academy reminds the public that they don’t undergo screening for obstructive sleep apnea or other contributing medical issues like cab drivers, over-the-road truckers, and railroad engineers.

“Fatigued driving is common,” says Dr. Indira Gurubhagavatula of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who coauthored the group’s statement, “… and this is a real opportunity to work together to address this real safety risk.”

Many drivers who work as rideshare drivers usually have another job and drive during their “off” time. This and other obligations can leave them able catch only a few hours of sleep, according to Gurubhagavatula and her fellow authors.

“As drivers accrue hours of sleep deprivation, their crash risk escalates,” says Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research for the AAA Foundation, which is also working to warn us of the dangers of drowsy driving. “Missing two hours of sleep can leave drivers as impaired as drunk driving,” he adds.

Underscoring this danger, data reveals that at least 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries, and over 800 deaths were attributed to drowsy driving in 2013, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Ridesharing providers say they are taking action to address driver fatigue. Beginning in February 2018, Uber began requiring drivers to go offline for six consecutive hours after 12 hours of driving. Lyft mandates the same downtime, but after 14 consecutive hours of driving.

Uber appears to acknowledge its safety responsibility. “Fatigue is something that impacts everyone, and if we’re going to make roads safer for all travelers and get to the goal of zero road deaths, we all have a role to play,” said Dr. Nadia Anderson, Manager of Public Policy, Road and Traffic safety for Uber during a recently published interview. But since the company’s anti-drowsy initiatives are so new, over time maybe they’ll gain traction and unqualified support.

“We also send notifications…” says Kate Margolis, a Corporate Communications Lead for Lyft about some of her company’s anti-fatigue measures. “[They go to] drivers reminding them about the importance of getting enough rest and investigate any reports of fatigued or unsafe driving and take appropriate actions, which can include deactivation.…”

The AASM, however, considers both companies’ steps less than sufficient and would like to see firm regulations that mandate specific rest periods, limit hours of service, and encourage drivers with sleep disorders to receive treatment – much like the ongoing initiatives taken by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in using on-board technology to regulate hours of service for long-haul commercial truckers.

“Many of these ridesharing drivers are struggling to make ends meet and do this because of economic realities,” Gurubhagavatula says. “We need to create a safe environment where they can make a living without putting their lives at risk.”

And, we would add, protecting their passengers and those of us they must share the road with every day.