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Truck Driver Sleep Apnea Remains a Threat to Public Safety

The past two years have been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride when it comes to sleep apnea testing for truck drivers. Right now, lawmakers who say they’re out to pass testing requirements which could reduce deadly truck crashes continue to fight against trucking industry lobbyists and even their own colleagues, who argue that mandatory sleep apnea testing for truck drivers constitutes a “witch hunt” that invades drivers’ privacy. 

However, as attorneys who fight every day on behalf of the injured victims of truck wrecks as well as their loved ones, we view the current argument as primarily a fight between those who mainly care about public safety and those whose number one concern is trucking industry profits. 

The Current State of Truck Driver Sleep Apnea Testing 

In December of 2016, we reported on a federal court ruling which found that requiring sleep apnea testing for drivers who have a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or higher does not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. We considered the ruling a win for everyday motorists as well as truck drivers themselves, who often suffer serious health complications due to undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). 

With the November 2016 presidential election, though, the political landscape changed, and the outlook for comprehensive truck driver sleep apnea testing changed with it. Less than a year later, under the direction of President Trump, both the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) withdrew a March 2016 proposal to strengthen the regulations around sleep apnea testing for truck drivers and train engineers. 

According to the FMCSA news release, the agencies decided that current medical fitness testing measures are sufficient to address the problem of undiagnosed sleep apnea in truck drivers. (This makes little sense considering that sleep apnea remains a leading cause of truck driver fatigue, which is itself one of the most common causes of deadly truck wrecks.) 

In September 2017, congressional Democrats proposed a new bill that would require the Secretary of Transportation to create a final rule for sleep disorder screening, testing, and treatment for operators of commercial vehicles like large trucks and buses. The outcome of this lawmaking push remains to be seen. 

The transportation industry appears divided over the issue, with many trucking companies and lobbying organizations opposing stricter requirements on medical fitness testing for truck drivers. In fact, the Owner-Operated Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) is suing the Department of Transportation over current sleep apnea testing, alleging that the FMCSA slipped language regarding OSA into existing medical fitness testing rules for truckers as a way to bypass the official rulemaking process. (Essentially, this means OOIDA is suing to roll back the limited sleep apnea testing measures that currently exist and undermine the foundation for future testing requirements.) 

At the same time, trucking industry publications like Transportation Topics and Fleet Owner have made an effort to highlight the numerous deadly road and railway accidents in recent years that may have been partially or completely caused by sleep apnea-related fatigue, and they have also reported on studies that show sleep apnea treatment could lower the risk of a crash for many truckers.       

Why Is Sleep Apnea Such a Concern for Truckers and Other Commercial Drivers? 

Despite the FMCSA’s recent withdrawal of the proposal for enhanced sleep apnea testing requirements and the accompanying statement, which seemed to dismiss concerns over the serious and ongoing problem of sleep apnea in truck drivers, the FMCSA maintains a page of information on its website devoted to sleep apnea and fatigue in truckers. This page even references an FMCSA-sponsored study which found that almost 30 percent of commercial truck drivers have mild to severe sleep apnea.  

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, sleep apnea causes stoppages in breathing that can occur 30 or more times an hour, which adds up to hundreds of incidents a night where the sufferer stops breathing. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form, and it occurs when the sufferer’s airway becomes blocked or collapsed. The resulting shallow and inhibited breathing disrupts sleep throughout the night. 

Sufferers typically experience the symptoms of sleep apnea night after night, so they never really get a solid night’s sleep. It’s not surprising, then, that sleep apnea is a leading cause of daytime drowsiness and chronic fatigue. 

RELATED: Are Older Truck Driving Causing More Wrecks?

Even though sleep apnea can be extremely disruptive to a sufferer’s life and health, an individual may be completely oblivious to their own sleep apnea. Many sufferers get alerted to their sleep apnea when a partner notices loud snoring or pauses in breathing at night; however, truck drivers often sleep alone while they’re on the road, which means they may have no one around to warn them about their disrupted sleep. 

The only accurate way to diagnose sleep apnea is an overnight sleep study in a laboratory. However, sleep apnea is much more common in overweight and obese individuals, which is why proposed screening for sleep apnea has often focused on BMI as an important risk factor. 

Only Unsafe, Profit-Driven Trucking Companies Win When Drivers Aren’t Tested for Sleep Apnea 

The high rate of sleep apnea in truck drivers creates a public safety hazard that is much more serious than a bit of sleepiness. 2016 research from AAA shows that drivers who miss two to three hours of sleep a day more than quadruple their risk of getting in a crash. In addition, experts from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have reported that driving while drowsy is similar to drunk driving in terms of its effects on reflexes, coordination, and judgment. 

Unfortunately, until lawmakers institute serious rules about seeking out and preventing sleep apnea, a high percentage of drivers are going to continue operating under the influence of chronic fatigue. This creates a public safety risk equal to hundreds or even thousands of truck drivers taking to the roads drunk every day, which we find it hard to believe that lawmakers and the public would stand for. 

However, until trucking companies stop lobbying against sleep apnea testing measures at every turn, or until lawmakers work together to pass stronger regulations despite trucking industry opposition, truck drivers will keep driving while dangerously fatigued — and innocent victims and their loved ones will continue to suffer the consequences. 

Contact Seattle Truck Law Today If You’ve Been Hurt in a Trucking Accident 

If you or a loved one has been injured in a crash involving a large truck or bus, please contact Morgan Adams and the Seattle Truck Law team today. We’ll listen to your story and advise you about your legal options during a free consultation, and when you choose us to represent you, we’ll investigate all the causes of the crash that injured you and pursue every available option to get you the compensation you deserve. 

To schedule your free initial consultation today, call us at (866) 580-HURT or fill out our quick and easy online contact form. The sooner you reach out, the sooner we can move to preserve evidence and make sure your rights are protected – so call us now!     

References 

AAA study finds risks of drowsy driving comparable to drunk driving. (2016, December 6). CBS News. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/aaa-study-drowsy-driving-dangers-comparable-to-drunk-driving/ 

Abt, Neil. Democratic lawmakers seek mandatory sleep apnea testing for truckers. (2017, October 21). FleetOwner. Retrieved from http://beta.fleetowner.com/collision-prevention/democratic-lawmakers-seek-mandatory-sleep-apnea-testing-truckers?utm_test=redirect&utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F 

Crist, C. (2016, September 28). Treatment could lower crash risk for truckers with sleep apnea. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.ttnews.com/categories/sleep-apnea 

Driving when you have sleep apnea. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Retrieved from https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/driver-safety/sleep-apnea/driving-when-you-have-sleep-apnea  

FMCSA and FRA withdraw advance notice of proposed rulemaking on obstructive sleep apnea among commercial motor vehicle drivers and rail workers. (2107, August 4). Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Retrieved from https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/newsroom/fmcsa-and-fra-withdraw-advance-notice-proposed-rulemaking-obstructive-sleep-apnea-among  

Senators debut bill mandating sleep apnea testing. (2017, September 29). Transport Topics. Retrieved from http://www.ttnews.com/articles/senators-debut-bill-mandating-sleep-apnea-testing 

What is sleep apnea? (2012, July 10). National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sleepapnea/ 

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject. 

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