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What Does the Saying "Asleep at the Wheel" Mean?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By jonrss — On Mar 17, 2012

I think there were a lot of instances of people being asleep at the wheel that contributed to the economic downturn that we are currently in. It amazes me that so many smart people were able to miss so many obvious warning signs and steer this economy into the toilet. I can only assume that they were asleep at the wheel, too blinded by the money they were making to see the crash that was looming.

By Ivan83 — On Mar 16, 2012

I used to work for a guy that you would probably say was asleep at the wheel. He owned his own small printing company but I don't think he had any idea what was going on. He had a right hand man that ran most of the operation and the big boss just kind of sat around telling stories and smoking cigarettes.

I think that if you set him up at one of the presses he would have no idea what to do. He wasn't even much of a salesman. It was a miracle that the company stayed afloat. You would think that the people at the top would have to be accountable but I guess that is not always the case.

By summing — On Mar 16, 2012

Has anyone ever fallen asleep while driving? I am more than a little ashamed to admit that I have.

I was on a long drive over night. The road was very flat and straight and there were hardly any other drivers or billboards or lights. It was a cloudy night so even the sky was dark.

I was getting sleepier and sleepier and I knew that I should pull over but I was in a hurry to get where I was going and didn't want to pull off. Next thing I knew I was waking up in a corn field and my radiator was shot. I got lucky because the accident could have been much worse and even killed someone.

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