Driver fatigue is a serious issue in the United States, especially among commercial truck drivers. Operating a vehicle while fatigued, especially a heavy truck weighing in at 80,000 pounds, is incredibly risky and can lead to tragic truck crashes.
According to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), driver fatigue (or drowsy driving) was responsible for a total of 72,000 crashes in 2013. Those fatigue-related crashes resulted in 44,000 injuries and 800 deaths.
In a poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, 60 percent of adult drivers (roughly 168 million people) admitted to driving a vehicle while feeling drowsy at some point during the year. More than one third of those polled (roughly 103 million people) admitted to actually falling asleep while behind the wheel while driving. Perhaps the scariest statistic: four percent of those polled (roughly 11 million people) admitted to having an accident or nearly causing an accident after dozing off behind the wheel.
Driver fatigue happens most commonly to those who do not get enough restful sleep. Not being able to get a healthy amount of restful sleep can be caused by any number of issues, but is especially common amongst those who take prescription medication, drink alcohol or have an untreated sleep disorder, like sleep apnea.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which a person has one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep. These breathing pauses can last for a few seconds or minutes, and can occur 30 times or more over the course of an hour.
When a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep, it causes them to move from a deep sleep into light sleep. This means that those affected are often not getting enough restful sleep, and are thus tired the next day. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, sleep apnea is the leading cause of daytime sleepiness.
The most common type of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), where a person’s airway collapses or becomes partially blocked, causing breathing pauses or shallow breathing during sleep.
Truck Driver Sleep Apnea
The profession of truck driving is a sedentary one; truckers are stuck in a seat for most of their days, unable to exercise, aside from the occasional stretch when they fill up the tank with gas or stop to eat. Truck drivers are also generally not exposed to nutritious food while on the job, often forced to rely on calorie-dense fast food chains for sustenance.
This lack of exercise and access to quality food, along with the stress associated with making it to their destinations on time, result in truckers being more likely to have diabetes, high body mass indexes (BMI) and high blood pressure.
What are some of the most common risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea?
- High BMI
- High Blood Pressure
- Alcohol or Sedative Use
A study sponsored by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) found that roughly 33 percent of truck drivers suffer from mild to severe sleep apnea. According to a Cleveland Clinic estimate, as many as 80 percent of all OSA cases across the country go undiagnosed.
Presently, truck drivers are not required to be tested for sleep apnea prior to receiving their commercial driver’s license, even though the FMCSA has been recommending OSA screening for years. Commercial pilots undergo OSA screening as part of the job. For some reason, truck drivers are not held to the same standard, even though driver fatigue is a serious safety issue.
Feds Leaning Toward Implementing Sleep Apnea Screening
Over the summer, the FMCSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) took steps toward adopting a rule that would go a long way towards fixing the truck driver sleep apnea issue. The new rule would require all commercial truck drivers (and railroad workers) to be screened for OSA. The government could also require treatment for drivers and railroad workers with sleep apnea.
One of the treatments, known as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), has shown promising results. CPAP requires bedtime use of a machine that includes a mask and tube, which pushes air into the nose and mouth. The machine serves as an internal splint that stops a person’s airway from collapsing, thus promoting restful sleep.
“What we know is that for commercial drivers with obstructive sleep apnea who are treated with CPAP, we see a 73 percent reduction in preventable driving accidents,” says Dr. Nathaniel Watson, former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Watson told Fox News that the issue of sleep apnea among those working in safety-sensitive fields would be a serious health concern if it remains unaddressed.
As of now, it’s unclear whether the new rules would affect current drivers. It is also unclear whether screening for OSA would be a determining factor in hiring new drivers. What is clear, however, is that something needs to be done to address the truck driver sleep apnea issue, otherwise fatigue-related truck accidents will continue to be a serious problem.