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Political Science

When politics collide with science, science usually gets most of the bruises. Such is the case in the recent flap over air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood could hardly restrain himself after sleeping-controller incidents were reported in Tennessee, Washington D.C., Texas, Nevada and, most recently, Florida. Pronouncing himself “outraged” and declaring that “safety is our number one priority,” LaHood promised on April 13 — before the Miami incident — to put an extra controller on the midnight shift at 27 towers that were previously staffed by only one person overnight.

Last week, the transportation secretary pledged to “make sure that controllers are well rested,” ordering new rules to require at least nine hours between controllers’ shifts, rather than the previous eight.

LaHood says he is doing everything he can to ensure safety. The truth is that he is doing everything he wants, which is not the same thing.

One important thing LaHood can do to fight controller fatigue, but chooses not to — despite ample scientific evidence that it would make a big difference — is to change controllers’ work rules so they can take naps during their shifts. Maybe because he thinks there is an important principle involved, or maybe because his political sense is a lot more muscular than his common sense, the cabinet officer who has promised to ensure well-rested controllers thinks it is just too unseemly to let them actually get some rest.

“Paying controllers to sleep will not be part of what we do,” he vowed on national television.

That’s unfortunate. The controllers’ union correctly points out that napping is a well-established approach to fatigue management. Other countries, including Germany and Japan, already provide for controllers’ sleep breaks. Other regulators agree. Australia’s National Transport Commission goes so far as to advise trucking companies that they are responsible for ensuring that their drivers are adequately rested, and that providing scheduled nap time is a way of meeting that obligation.

LaHood’s pig-headedness may let him persuade himself that he’s being a tough boss, but it isn’t going to do anything to stop a controller from nodding off at 2 a.m. in a darkened tower. Abstinence is a questionable policy in many areas. When it comes to sleep, it’s simply ridiculous.

Of course, the transportation secretary has a boss who has his own concerns about aviation safety. It did not take long after Michelle Obama’s plane came too close for comfort to a military transport for the Federal Aviation Administration to beef up supervision for traffic control around aircraft carrying the first lady or the vice president. I don’t quarrel with the V.I.P. attention to those presumably high-value passengers, and I know it is impractical to extend the same level of consideration to lower priorities, like you and me.

But the controller nap arrangements are simple to implement and scientifically proven. Maybe, now that his own significant other has been protected, President Obama can ask his transportation chief to wake up and deal with reality for the benefit of the rest of the traveling public.

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