April 15, 2011 -- On the same day that Vice President Joe Biden nodded off during President Obama's debt reduction speech, a snoozing Nevada air traffic controller forced an air ambulance pilot with an emergency patient aboard to land without the controller's guidance -- the fourth in a series of similar episodes that have grown so acute that even President Obama felt pressed to respond.
"The individuals who are falling asleep on the job, that's unacceptable," Obama told ABC News in an exclusive interview today.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced it would double-staff overnight shifts at 27 airports where controllers were working -- and apparently sleeping -- solo. The chief of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization has resigned, and the catnapping controllers -- including at least one who'd been on a fourth straight overnight shift -- have been suspended.
These recent involuntary siestas among holders of high-profile and high-stakes jobs suggest the nation might have a problem: At least a third of the U.S. population is sleep deprived, said Dr. David M. Rapoport, director of the New York University Sleep Disorders Center.
"People's needs vary enormously," said Rapoport. "The average is about 7.5 or eight hours of sleep at night. If you look around, you'll realize very few of us actually get that."
As a society, we remain largely in denial about the biological need for sleep, believing we're "supermen and superwomen, and that we can cheat on sleep and there's no price," Rapoport said.
But history has repeatedly proved us wrong.
The consequences of cutting sleep can be devastating. Expert reviews of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Challenger space shuttle disaster have suggested that fatigue, possibly from sleep deprivation, were contributing circumstances. In those three events, people "were sleep-deprived and made the wrong decision," Rapoport said.
Cameras, Videos Capture High-Profile Slumbering
It's not that sleeping on the job is new. Throughout history, people have drifted off at inopportune times. But only since still cameras and video cameras became omnipresent recorders of private moments in public lives have we captured lapses of alertness that might have previously passed unnoticed.
A century ago, the sultan of snoozers, President William Howard Taft, who served one term from 1909-1913 and carried more than 350 pounds on his 5-foot-11.5-inch frame, could have been a poster boy for sleeping on the job. Taft likely suffered from obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder in which sleep is interrupted hundreds of times a night by imperceptible wakenings, according to a 2003 article by Dr. John G. Sotos, a California cardiologist, published in the medical journal Chest. Despite his tendency to nod off during conversations with the House speaker and chief justice of the Supreme Court, at his desk and at public events, his sleepiness "never prompted official discussion of his fitness to govern," Sotos wrote.
"Had there been television in those days and had people seen this, I don't think he would have lasted in the White House," said Rapoport.
Biden's lid-lowering turn during Obama's speech at George Washington University Wednesday afternoon wasn't the first instance of an Obama administration official getting caught catching zzzs. On Feb. 24, 2009, Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council, fell asleep sitting a few feet from Obama at a White House meeting.
The gallery of politicians snapped during suspended consciousness includes British Prime Minister Gordon Brown before he addressed the United Nations Security Council on April 16, 2008; former President Bill Clinton at Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration on Jan. 21, 2008; and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at President George W. Bush's State of the Union address Bush on Jan. 23, 2007.
Rapoport said 80 percent of people who claim not to need much sleep "really require eight hours of sleep -- they either snatch it in other ways or they power through it." The inventor Thomas Edison claimed to sleep only three or four hours a night but napped frequently. Sleep needs may be genetically preprogrammed, but in the meantime "you have to play with what you're dealt."
How to Avoid Public Snoozing
Rapoport offers the following recommendations:
Know how much sleep you need. "The right amount is the amount that makes you feel good," he said.
Recognize the warning signs of sleep impairment. By the time you notice you've nodded off while driving "you've already done it between five and seven times," said Rapoport. "You've already escaped some pretty awful things." If you're impaired, "either don't drive that day, or think about what it is in your lifestyle that you can change."
Try to establish a regular routine.
Become aware of the warning signs of sleep-disrupting disorders. "The most common marker of those disorders is that you sleep what seems like a reasonable amount of time, and yet you're still sleepy," said Rapoport. Doctors only recently have begun recognizing the impact of sleep apnea, now thought to affect about 20 percent of the population, with similar consequences to sleep deprivation.