SPOKANE, Wash. -- It seems to happen all too frequently to drivers: eyelids suddenly buckling under the burden of exhaustion.
It happened to a Santa Clara County Deputy on March 8, 2008. After working all night, then-deputy James Council fell asleep at the wheel. His patrol car ran right into a swarm of cyclists, killing two people.
The story sends Spokane Police officer Jordan Ferguson into a flashback.
"I do remember one time driving home after working a graveyard shift and waking up about five miles away from home in the middle of a field,” said Fergurson. “I had fallen asleep on the way home."
Corporal Ferguson knew he was lucky that morning. No one was hurt.
"I knew immediately what had happened. I had no idea how long I’d been sitting there."
Fatigue from long shifts, late-night patrols, overtime and off-duty court appearances add up to what some call the 'dirty secret' of patrol.
"Managing police fatigue is one of those big problems that everyone's ignored for a long, long time," said Washington State University researcher Dr. Bryan Vila.
In Spokane, at the first sleep clinic and simulation laboratory in the world, Vila is accruing an arsenal of research about fatigue and police officer performance. His simulations show how sleep-deprived officers are impaired, which not only impacts safe driving, it also reduces officers’ ability to communicate in delicate situations.
"[A] tired officer tends to be crankier than an officer well rested, right?" Vila said. "By the time you notice that you're tired you say, ‘Oh geez, I'm getting drowsy.’ You're already seriously impaired."
That impairment is why Dr. Vila is taking feelings out of the equation.
He was recently invited to the White House to unveil his new alertness app called "Be Sharp."
"It looks like a wrist watch but it's really a wrist acti-graph."
"Be Sharp" takes data from a wristband tracking an officer's sleep and constantly assesses fatigue. When an officer becomes less-than-optimal, the app pushes an alert to their smartphone.
"And so it says ‘Warning! Alertness score dropped below 90 percent. You're reaction time has dropped 20 percent. Take these counter measures,’" said Vila.
Initially, the app suggests counter measures like a little caffeine or a quick walk around the car. However, Dr. Vila says extreme fatigue impairs a person as if they had consumed enough alcohol to climb above the legal limit. That is when the app sends a message an officer is dangerously drowsy and only a nap will do.
But, is it realistic in law enforcement to have something tell an officer to pull over and take a nap?
"It could be, and that's part of getting the culture to accept it," said Corporal Ferguson. "If an officer had food poisoning, it'd be realistic to get a hold of a supervisor and say ‘I can't be out here anymore.'"
Vila believes knowledge about the severity of the problem will slowly prompt a culture shift across the country.
"People will say, ‘You're going to work a double shift or a triple shift and then go out in the field carrying a gun, driving an emergency vehicle? Are you crazy?’ You're not safe to do that and they won't do that," Vila said.
Corporal Ferguson hopes that is true. As soon as the app is road-ready, Ferguson said he is ready to sign up.
"[It’s] probably going to be life-saving somewhere along the line," said Ferguson.
If all goes to plan, the technology could save the life of an officer, or perhaps a member of the public they serve.