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Hollywood’s Grueling Hours & Drowsy-Driving Problem: Crew Members Speak Out Despite Threat To Careers

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EXCLUSIVE: It’s been four months since Riverdale actor KJ Apa crashed into a lamp post after a long day of shooting, giving rise to questions about long hours on movie and TV sets and the dangers of what is known as “drowsy driving.” Actors, actresses and crew members now are speaking on the record about the dangers of long hours and sleep deprivation and are asking the film and television industries to finally do something about it.

Many who spoke to Deadline said they had been told by others on set to keep quiet, something that has been steadily changing since camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed on a live train track “set” during the filming of Midnight Rider in 2014 and more so now and since the #MeToo movement has erased some of the fear of speaking up.

“The threats made to my career when speaking out, the [production managers] who refused to get hotel rooms for crews after these long hours and allowed us to drive home, the producers who pushed for this … I have lots of stories and far too many near-death moments that were deemed acceptable by productions over the past 18 years,” said Adam Bocknek, an assistant director who has worked in both film and TV. He said he is speaking up now to try to initiate true change after being injured himself. “Every study has shown that a lack of sleep is really dangerous for you. Every study says it, but the film industry chooses to ignore them. To me, that is unconscionable.”

He’s right. Studies by groups ranging from the Centers for Disease Control to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration show cognitive impairment comes from lack of sleep. “Drowsy driving is not just falling asleep at the wheel; it mimics alcohol-impaired driving,” Stephen Higgins told Reuters after releasing his report for the NHTSA on the matter in February 2017. The study itself (read it here) states, “Drowsiness leads to slower reaction times, and impaired attention, mental processing, judgment, and decision making.”

Working long and irregular hours is one of the “lifestyle” issues that can cause drowsy driving, it states. “Annually on average from 2009 to 2013, there were over 72,000 police-reported crashes involving drowsy drivers, injuring more than an estimated 41,000 people, and killing more than 800,” the reports state.

In 2012, another study was put out that detailed there were 168 million drowsy drivers a year on the road and one in five car accidents was caused by it. And, a BMJ study found that working in jobs with overtime schedules was associated with a 61% higher injury-hazard rate compared to non-OT jobs.

Since the statistics are available to all entertainment employers, it would seem studios and networks would have some liability in being able to foresee a problem of pushing people to the brink.

“What we’re talking about is most of these people are considered independent contractors,” said personal injury lawyer Gary Dordick, who has handled catastrophic-injury cases against big-rig and commercial truck drivers who cross lanes and crash, harming others due to sleep deprivation.

“The question is, can you extend the liability to a third party to someone driving or operating machinery outside of a work site after they’ve been pushed to perform very long hours, and then, due to fatigue, they hurt [themselves or someone else]? Morally and ethically, yes, I understand the issue, but holding a third party liable for a crash outside of a work site … it’s my understanding there is one appellate court case in CA that has ruled that the employer cannot be held liable.” To that end, he cited the 1998 case Depew v. Crocodile Enterprises, Inc.

Torstein Coyler, who has worked in the industry for 15 years and three as a crew member in both TV and feature film, said he has, in the past, worked two days back-to-back totaling 33 hours. “It’s absolutely dangerous to work these hours. Fourteen-hour days should be banned,” said Coyler. “Twelve hours are even pushing it, but it should never exceed 12-hour days because it becomes dangerous. You become cognitively impaired, and the travel time is hazardous.”


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