Asleep at the switch and asleep at the wheel

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Asleep at the switch and asleep at the wheel are idioms with origins that date back a little over one hundred years. We will examine the meaning of the idioms asleep at the switch and asleep at the wheel, their origins, and some examples of their use in sentences.

Asleep at the switch means inattentive, not taking care of one’s responsibilities, failing at one’s duty, not doing one’s job. The idiom asleep at the switch first appeared around 1900, and is related to the railroad industry. Railroad workers switched tracks or drove the train engine using levers. If the worker were asleep at the switch, then a collision would occur.

Asleep at the wheel also means inattentive, not taking care of one’s responsibilities, failing at one’s duty, not doing one’s job. Asleep at the wheel is also still used in a literal sense. The idiom asleep at the wheel came into use about twenty years after the appearance of the idiom asleep at the switch, and is related to driving a truck or automobile. Someone who falls asleep behind the wheel while driving will certainly be involved in an accident. People who drive in the middle of the night or after bedtime may fall asleep while driving because they are not getting enough hours of sleep or are suffering from sleep deprivation. While nighttime is when most drivers feel sleepy, lack of sleep or not getting enough sleep due to interrupted sleep patterns may cause drivers to drift off because of daytime sleepiness. It is important to have a good night of sleep or enough sleep so one does not become drowsy when driving. Some turn to stimulants when they are sleepy, which is not a good idea. Today, the term asleep at the wheel is about four times as popular as asleep at the switch.


Mr. Pompeo, speaking in the commercial capital Sydney, said, “We were asleep at the switch” as China began to steal data, launch military exercises in the disputed South China Sea and saddle other countries with debt to increase its influence. (The Wall Street Journal)

Of course, our entire legislative and executive branches were not asleep at the switch; they knew the day of reckoning was on its way and could have, one would think, taken quiet and effective action sooner. (The Washington Examiner)

Still, even if Dilma knew nothing about Petrobras graft (despite being on the board for seven years until 2010), we can at least all agree that she was asleep at the wheel. (Forbes Magazine)

Eaniri, who voted for the third reading, told The Enterprise on Wednesday that he was “asleep at the wheel” when the vote took place Tuesday evening and planned to change his vote at the clerk’s office. (The Enterprise News)

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