Sleep disorders and daytime sleepiness are the most frequent disturbances reported by shift-workers. Sleepiness and fatigue can increase the risk of human errors and accidents especially during night work. In order to evaluate the time distribution and the possible role of sleepiness on road accidents in policemen on shift-work on highway patrols over 24 hours, we analyzed 1218 car accidents that occurred on the Italian highway network in the period 1993-1997. Accidents occurring during day shifts were significantly correlated with traffic density while accidents occurring during night shifts were not. During the 19:00-01:00 h shift the number of accidents showed a progressively increasing trend with two significant peaks around 23:00 and 01:00 h. Accidents occurring during the 01:00-07:00 h shift did not show significant trends. Information about sleep habits before starting night shifts were obtained by means of telephone interviews. While 85% of the subjects usually took a nap (30-90 min) before the 01:00-07:00 h shift only 15% took a short nap (< 30 minutes) before the 19:00-01:00 h shift. The data can be interpreted as a balance between circadian factors, homeostasis and fatigue related influences and spontaneously adopted counteracting strategies to increase the level of vigilance during night work hours. While a long nap seems to reduce the risk of accidents during the 01:00-07:00 h shift, policemen seem to underestimate the risk of sleepiness during the shift 19:00-01:00 h shift.