asleep at the switch
Also, asleep at the wheel. Inattentive, not doing one's job, as in At the critical moment the watchman was asleep at the switch and only called the fire department when it was too late. This term came from 19th-century American railroading, when it was the trainman's duty to switch cars from one track to another by means of manually operated levers. Should he fail to do so, trains could collide. It was later transferred to any lack of alertness. The wheel in the variant is a steering wheel; similarly disastrous results are implied.
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Example sentences from the Web for asleep at the switch
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The Café tender was asleep in his chair; the porter had gone off; the sentinel alone kept awake on his post.Glances at Europe|Horace Greeley
The sun shone and the birds sang, and the day was beautiful without when she at last fell asleep again.The Homesteader|Oscar Micheaux
He lifted his head, looked around him, and was just going to switch off the light, when he noticed the open book on his table.Bella Donna|Robert Hichens
Tressan was monstrous ill-at-ease, and his face lost a good deal of its habitual plethora of colour.St. Martin's Summer|Rafael Sabatini