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Police drowsy driving: predicting fatigue-related performance decay

Stephen M. James (Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology, Washington State University – Spokane, Spokane, WA, USA)
Bryan Vila (Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, and Sleep & Performance Research Center, Washington State University, Spokane, WA, USA)

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 17 August 2015




Fatigue associated with shift work is a well-established and pervasive problem in policing that affects officer performance, safety, and health. It is critical to understand the extent to which fatigue degrades officer driving performance. Drowsy driving among post-shift workers is a well-established risk factor yet no data are available about officer injuries and deaths due to drowsy driving. The purpose of this paper is to assess the impact of fatigue associated with work shift and prior sleep on officers’ non-operational driving using laboratory experiments to assess post-shift drowsy driving risks and the ability of a well-validated vigilance and reaction-time task to assess these risks.


Experienced police patrol officer volunteers (n=78) from all four shifts of a medium-sized city’s police department were tested using a within- and between-subjects design to assess the impact of fatigue on individual officers, as well as the impact of different work shifts, on post-shift driving performance. Controlled laboratory experiments were conducted during which participants drove high-fidelity driving training simulators on two occasions: immediately following five consecutive 10:40-hour patrol shifts (fatigued condition) and again 72 hours after completing the last shift in a work cycle (rested condition).


Generalized linear mixed-model analyses of driving performance showed that officers working night shifts had significantly greater lane deviation during post-shift, non-operational driving than those working day shifts (F=4.40, df=1, 150, p=0.038). The same method also showed that easy to measure psychomotor vigilance test scores for reaction time predicted both lane deviation (F=31.48, df=1, 151, p < 0.001) and collisions (F=14.10, df=1, 151, p < 0.001) during the simulated drives.

Research limitations/implications

Simulated driving tasks done by participants were generally less challenging than patrol or off-duty driving and likely underestimate the impact of fatigue on police driving post-shift or during extended shifts.


This is the first experimental research to assess the impact of shiftwork, fatigue, and extended shifts on police post-shift drowsy driving, a known risk factor for shift workers in general.



James, S.M. and Vila, B. (2015), "Police drowsy driving: predicting fatigue-related performance decay", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 38 No. 3, pp. 517-538.



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Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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