Dallas, 12/09/2016 /SubmitPressRelease123/
The FMCSA closed its period for public comments regarding a proposal that would make it mandatory for all commercial drivers to be tested for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which has been identified as one of major causes of truck accidents.
The NTSB, in consultation with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), is expected to make its recommendation before the end of 2016, which could authorize the U.S. Department of Transportation to propose a new law regarding the treatment of sleep apnea among commercial truck drivers.
Dangers of Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that causes the airway in a person’s throat to close during sleep for 10 seconds or more.
This loss of breathing function can occur as many as 400 times during the night, and those who have the disorder wake up multiple times, which can lead to exhaustion during the day.
Although sleep apnea is diagnosed across a wide demographic, there are certain factors that increase the risk of a person developing this disorder:
- Smoking and drinking alcohol
- Family history
- Small airway
- Recessed chin, large overbite
The troubling aspect of sleep apnea as it relates to truck drivers is that it causes intense fatigue, which is one of the major contributing factors in truck accidents.
Because sleep apnea interrupts the sleep cycle, people with this disorder often struggle with focusing and remaining alert during the day.
And occupations such as truck driving are physically and mentally taxing, which when combined with sleep apnea, can make for a fatal combination for other drivers.
Sleep Apnea Stats Among Commercial Drivers
Some recent statistics show that truck drivers are particularly vulnerable to developing sleep apnea.
A joint study by the University of Pennsylvania, FMCSA and the American Transportation Research Institute of the American Trucking Associations, found that 28 percent of commercial truck drivers have mild to severe apnea.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported in 2014 that drowsy driving resulted in 328,000 accidents, 109,000 injuries, and more than 6,000 fatalities each year.
What’s even scarier is that truck drivers are more likely to exhibit certain risk factors of sleep apnea.
The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety reported in 2014 that truck drivers who specialized in interstate deliveries had a 70 percent obesity rate, much higher than the general population.
The study also reported that truck drivers smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol at a higher rate than people who worked in other occupations.
Although sleep apnea is just one of the many health issues that plague truck drivers, it is potentially the most dangerous, because drowsy driving and falling asleep at the wheel often lead to devastating accidents that cause serious injuries and fatalities.
In an effort to lower the rate of sleep apnea-related truck accidents, the USDOT is making a strong push toward mandatory testing of all commercial truck drivers, bus drivers, and railroad workers to screen for OSA.
“It’s imperative for everyone’s safety that commercial motor vehicle drivers and train operators be fully focused and immediately responsive at all times,” stated U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
But not everyone is convinced that sleep apnea is a chronic issue in the trucking industry, or whether the existing research is credible.
“There is insufficient data linking OSA and higher crash rates,” countered Norita Taylor, a spokesperson for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “OSA testing can also be quite costly to drivers, both in terms of dollars and time, and if required by a Certified Medical Examiner, is rarely covered by standard medical insurance.”
Part of the problem with any proposal that USDOT recommends is that no one is sure whether mandatory testing would apply to current truck drivers, or new drivers only.
And if it does apply to current drivers, what would be the procedure if testing reveals that a driver has sleep apnea?
Although this latest push makes it seem as if this is a new issue, mandatory sleep apnea testing is something the USDOT has grappled with for several years.
In 2013, the FMCSA pressured Congress to make a law requiring sleep apnea screening, but the powerful trucking lobby spent millions opposing the measure, and delayed implementation of the law by requiring a formal process, which often takes years.
Lost in all the debate is the fact that once diagnosed, sleep apnea is very treatable with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device.
The machine features a mask and tube that transmits air into the nose and mouth and prevents the breathing blockage that afflicts people who suffer from sleep apnea.
“One of the biggest problems of OSA is excessive fatigue,” said Dr. Nathaniel Watson, former President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and a board certified neurologist and sleep expert. “And so clearly for anybody working in a safety-sensitive position where alertness is crucial to public safety, this is the type of illness that would be a major public health concern if it were not addressed.”
Beyond the potential benefits of lowering the rate of truck accidents caused by fatigued drivers, Watson said that treating sleep apnea could also prevent other illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, that are all linked to sleep apnea.
The American Trucking Associations (ATA), the leading member organization for truck drivers, has taken a wait-and-see attitude with the proposed governmental legislation.
“Right now there’s not a lot of solid data,” said Megan Bush, Safety Policy Manager for the ATA, “and considering that it could impose some significant costs on not just the industry, but drivers and eventually down the supply chain to consumers, we think it’s very important that they have a real understanding not only of the problem, but whether the benefits will outweigh the costs.”
Major Accident Caused By Fatigue
The ‘costs’ referenced by Bush can be seen in a major truck accident that occurred on June 7, 2014 that nearly killed comedian Tracy Morgan.
A 2011 Peterbilt truck, owned by Walmart and driven by Kevin Roper was traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike at 65 miles per hour.
An investigation revealed that Roper didn’t see/or ignored a sign that several lanes ahead were closed for construction.
He also ignored a sign that changed the speed limit from 55 mph to 45 mph, so at the time of the accident, Roper was traveling at 20 mph over the speed limit.
Instead of slowing down to account for the stalled traffic, Roper’s truck slammed into the rear of Morgan’s limo, which caused the limo to move forward and smash into several other vehicles.
The limo overturned and came to a rest on its left side.
Morgan suffered broken ribs, a broken leg, and a broken nose. His friend, James McNair, was killed in the accident, and another passenger was seriously injured.
An NTSB investigation found that Roper had been awake for more than 24 hours prior to the accident, and cited fatigue and speeding as the primary causes of the accident.
Roper was arrested and charged with vehicular homicide and assault by auto, and his trial is pending.
Morgan, who has since recovered from the accident, received an undisclosed settlement from a lawsuit he filed against Walmart.
Battling the Danger of Driver Fatigue
Driver fatigue has been a persistent issue for trucking companies over the past 30 years, as profits have become more important than safety for some carriers.
“The problem is that the trucking industry’s lobby is powerful, and they always try to block any legislative attempts at reducing the workweek for commercial drivers,” said Amy Witherite, partner at Eberstein & Witherite, LLP. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires that the driver of any commercial vehicle that meets certain conditions, adhere to the hours-of-service regulations that limits the number of hours a driver can operate a vehicle. Currently, truck drivers are not allowed to drive more than 60 hours in 7 consecutive days or 70 hours in 8 consecutive days.
Trucking companies have no incentive to reduce their workweek, given the level of competition in the industry.
“There’s a lot of money to be made,” Witherite stated, “So the majority of big trucking carriers are going to oppose any restriction on their ability to send drivers out on the road. It’s a big problem that shouldn’t be political, but unfortunately, that’s become part of the issue.”
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has recommended countermeasures to driver fatigue such as napping, consuming caffeine, and adherence to the mandatory rest periods associated with ‘Hours of Service’ regulations.
“Hours of service regulations are great in theory, but only if truck drivers follow those regulations,” Witherite added. “But it’s easy to falsify a logbook entry, so we don’t really know how many truck drivers are in compliance with the mandatory rest periods.”
Justice After An Accident
Truck accidents caused by driver fatigue, driver error, or some other reason can change a victim’s life. If you have been hurt in a truck accident, and you’re looking for a law firm that treats every client like a member of our family, please call 1-800-Truck-Wreck and speak with the lawyers at Eberstein & Witherite. We have a proven record of obtaining compensation for our clients, and helping them rebuild their lives.
Eberstein & Witherite, LLP
Email: [email protected]
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