Mark Rosekind

National Transportation Safety Board

Indefatigable scientist who studied fatigue tapped to lead U.S. road safety agency

Mark Rosekind, a psychologist whose research into fatigue in pilots helped shape modern air travel, has been named to a post that would cost many people sleep. Earlier this week, President Barack Obama nominated him to head the embattled National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency has been battered by a series of high-profile failures to quickly catch and fix lethal flaws in car ignition switches and air bags.

Rosekind’s work as a scientist focused on the toll exhaustion takes on human performance in high-stakes situations, including flying airplanes, driving big rigs, and performing surgery. He’s best known for leading research into fatigue among airline pilots in the early 1990s at NASA’s Ames Research Center. He oversaw experiments that wired commercial pilots to portable brain activity detectors (electroencephalographs), then tracked them during flights between the United States and Asia. The studies found that tired pilots suffered repeated “microsleeps” while flying, taking a toll on their performance. It also showed the benefits of brief naps, which became dubbed “NASA naps,” and in-flight sleeping berths. The napping protocol was adopted in much of the world, but not the United States. The beds are now standard on many long-distance flights.

“These studies were pioneering because he was really one of the first scientists to actually record pilot brain activity during long-haul flights,” David Dinges, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine who was involved in the research, told ScienceInsider.

Rosekind left NASA and started Alertness Solutions, a private firm, in 1998. It advised companies how to manage worker fatigue and safety. In 2010, he was named to the federal National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). There, he has been the lead board member for investigations into a number of accidents, including the April collision between a FedEx truck and a bus full of high school students that left 10 dead near Orland, California. He also earned headlines for pressing state governments to lower the legal threshold for drunk driving from a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration to 0.05. The board recommended the change in 2013, but no state has adopted the lower standard.

The idea was a political nonstarter, says Barron Lerner, a doctor of internal medicine at New York University in New York City, and author of One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving didn’t endorse the change, preferring to target binge drinkers and repeat offenders often blamed for deadly crashes, Lerner said. But he credited Rosekind with pushing the issue as a matter of science.

“I almost felt like it was a rhetorical. Nobody thought it had legs politically, but it was the sort of thing NTSB should be doing,” Lerner says. 

Rosekind’s new job, which requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate, is much more in the political spotlight. NHTSA is beset with criticism for its safety track record, handling of recalls, and what some charge is an overly cozy relationship with the industries its regulates. On Thursday, NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman was grilled at a U.S. Senate commerce committee hearing about exploding air bags blamed for at least five fatalities. NHTSA has been criticized for moving too slowly to identify the problem and force companies to fix it.

The next administrator will need to rally his staff, convince the auto industry he’s serious about enforcement, and persuade Congress to steer more money to the underfunded agency, says Joan Claybrook, president emeritus of the watchdog group Public Citizen and a NHTSA administrator under President Jimmy Carter.

“It’s going to need some very strong leadership. It’s going to need a cop on the beat,” she says. “I think Mark definitely has the skill set needed.”

If confirmed, Rosekind would be one of the few scientists to lead the agency, a post often held by lawyers, career administrators, or activists. A friend and scientific mentor, Mary Carskadon, a professor at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, says she spoke to Rosekind about why he would trade the quiet halls of NTSB for the new assignment.

“He wants to serve,” she says. “And if he can serve the country better at NHTSA—and he thinks there’s a real need that he can fill there—well then that’s where he wants to be.”