Drowsy driving by truckers who suffer from sleep apnea presents a risk to all motorists and tests to identify those drivers and require treatment will help protect everyone who drives on the nation’s highways
Drowsy driving is dangerous. Research has noted that 94 percent of crashes are the result of human negligence and error and driving while drowsy can be a fatal error. While it is possible for such a crash to occur to anyone who drives regularly, there is one group that raises particular concerns. That is truck drivers.
Truck drivers operate large trucks, many weighing upwards of 80,000 pounds, and they pilot those massive trucks thousands of miles across the country every day. Chicago is one of the central hubs for freight being shipped across the nation and Interstates 80, 90, 94, 55 and 65 all pass through or originate near Chicago as they cross Illinois and dozens of other states.
Tens of thousands of truck travel those roads and it is very likely that as you are reading this a drowsy truck driver is struggling to stay alert and awake somewhere in Chicagoland. Some of these drivers may be sleepy because they are near the end of their trip and are close to maxing out their driving time. Some may have stayed out too late the night before and are simply short on sleep.
But there is another group that is potentially very dangerous because they may not even realize they suffer from a condition that causes them to sleep very poorly and as a result, may drive when they are sleep deprived and be involved in catastrophic crashes.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition where the muscles of the throat and tongue relax and block the airway to the lungs. This can deprive the brain and other organs of oxygen from 10 seconds to upwards of one minute. When breathing resumes, it is often with a start and this condition is typically accompanied by loud snoring. One symptom of the condition is obesity, which can be identified by body-mass index (BMI) numbers.
Sleep apnea causes havoc with sleep quality, leaving suffers feeling tired and exhausted, and that fatigue often can cause them to doze off throughout the day. Lack of restorative sleep for most people can be a problem, but dozing off at your keyboard comes with far more benign consequences as compared with nodding off behind the wheel of semi truck moving at more than 100 feet per second on the Dan Ryan or Kennedy Expressway (when traffic is moving, that is).
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Medical Review Board and Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee recently have recommended that truck drivers with a BMI of 40 or higher be given an in-lab sleep study to assess if they have sleep apnea. The two advisory boards also recommended that drivers with a BMI of 33 or greater and who have other indicators, such as high blood pressure, snore loudly or a neck size greater than 17 inches also be tested.
This has caused alarm for many truckers or small trucking companies, as they are worried they will have to pay for the tests. While the tests are not inexpensive, the reality is obstructive sleep apnea is a genuine threat to all motorists. Trucking as an occupation is conducive to obesity, with drivers spending hours behind the wheel, often eating a poor diet of fast food. Self-reporting is unlikely, as most drivers who have the potential indicators are fearful they will be taken out of service if they admit to the condition.
However, if sleep apnea testing and treatment is a necessary business expense, it should be viewed as no different from properly maintaining the brakes and tires of the truck. The FMCSA includes the word “safety” in its title because its mandate is to promote truck safety, not the profits of the trucking industry.