A Snoozing VP and Sleeping Air Traffic Controllers Suggest We're Dangerously Sleep Deprived

Public siestas by high-profile figures suggest sleep-deprivation.

ByABC News
April 14, 2011, 6:43 PM

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.