The phrase “asleep at the wheel” is a colloquial idiom that illustrates how sayings or idiomatic phrases are often abstracted versions of a literal statement; as this phrase is used figuratively, it means that someone in some position of authority has either neglected some aspect of his or her role, or failed to recognize threats or other warning signs that could produce an adverse effect. The literal meaning of the phrase refers to a driver losing consciousness while driving a vehicle, something that is extremely dangerous and indicates poor judgment. The idiomatic version of this phrase is much more versatile and often less dire.
It’s important to note that using the phrase seems to indicate that a party has neglected authority or responsibility. For example, in a scenario where outside plans threaten a company or group, English speakers would not usually say “they all fell asleep at the wheel,” but rather, “[the leadership] was asleep at the wheel.” The phrase is also often used for regulatory agencies that have a responsibility to protect a national population from various ills and commercial or routine dangers.
When a group of people who do not have a leadership role fail to see a threat or potentially negative event on the horizon, the speaker might say “they were asleep,” or that newly aware citizens are “waking up,” but not that they “fell asleep at the wheel,” since the “wheel” in this idiom represents an abstraction of the physical wheel used to drive a car, pilot a boat, or maneuver another vehicle. In more dramatic terms, some might say of a community responding collectively to a threat that “a sleeping giant has awoken,” indicating the speaker’s prediction that the communal response will be immense and effective.
As the phrase “asleep (or sleeping) at the wheel” serves well to place blame on various parties after a catastrophe or negative event, it has largely become part of the colloquial, idiomatic jargon around public health and safety. For instance, reporters or others might frequently say that municipal government “fell asleep at the wheel” in failing to anticipate storm damage, revenue shortfalls, or anything else that becomes problematic. When a financial crisis threatens a nation, critics of financial regulators will often say that these sentinels “fell asleep at the wheel". The phrase has a broad use and appeal for those who are trying to dramatize what they see as the failing of others to address and deal with problems proactively.