Should Truck Drivers be Tested for Sleep Apnea?

In light of the car crash last month that seriously injured comedian Tracy Morgan, more attention is being drawn to the grave safety issue of truck drivers nodding off on the job. If a motorist has sleep apnea–a health condition that impairs quality of sleep and increases drowsiness–the risk of an accident is even greater.

Accidents resulting from sleep apnea are well-documented. Late last year, a train on New York City’s Metro North Line slipped off a curve and crashed, killing four people and injuring 63. The accident occurred because the engineer was asleep at the wheel—a result of his undiagnosed sleep apnea. In another case, a school bus driver was filmed nodding off while driving a bus-full of children. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), fatigue resulting from sleep apnea is a nationwide problem encompassing commuters, truckers, pilots, and marines.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a disorder in which airflow is restricted during sleep, leading to reduced oxygen to the brain and poor sleep quality. As a result, patients with the condition suffer from impaired concentration and drowsiness during the day. When combined with a long and monotonous task like driving a vehicle, it can lead to them nodding off at the wheel, with the potential for immense damage to property and human life.

Part of the problem, however, is that many drivers do not know they have the condition.

The National Transportation Safety Board has published a set of recommendations advising that pilots be tested for sleep apnea and that further research be conducted. However, there is currently no nationwide program or standard in place for screening drivers for sleep apnea, though informal attempts have been made to implement one.

Requirements for sleep testing in the transportation industry have met with opposition from industry groups, such as the American Trucking Association (ATA) and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA).  Last year, the ATA backed a bill that was signed into law by President Obama in October. The new law requires that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration use a formal regulatory process if it chooses to implement across-the-board sleep testing (as opposed to merely using agency guidance, which is not subject to public approval). Truckers and engineers are concerned that drivers could be forced to foot the cost of an expensive test that they cannot afford (in-lab sleep testing can cost as much as $2500).

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is currently conducting research on the dangers of fatigue resulting from sleep apnea and exploring the possibility of required sleep testing.

Regardless of one’s occupation, sleep apnea can be a dangerous and medically serious condition. If you think you might have a sleep disorder, discuss with your doctor if you need a sleep study or request a call/email.

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Previous comments on Sleepdr.com/blog:

8/12/2014, 8:13:48 AM

I think it is a no brainer.

Why not take the safer, and more health beneficial route.

No harm could possibly come out of testing for Sleep Apnea

Frank Spinazzola

3/16/2015, 6:01:47 AM

Being a truck driver I think that of all the hundreds of regulations that we have to follow, this one makes the most sense. I am not over weight, 5′ 9″ 166 lbs, but I think that I would like to be tested.

3/18/2015, 8:16:23 AM

Thank you for your comment–it’s great to get insight from someone who is in this position. Given the prevalence of sleep apnea and the dangers of driving sleepy, it’s a good idea for people who drive/operate machinery for a living to get tested, even if it’s not required by law.

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    Truckers and engineers are concerned that drivers could be forced to foot the cost of an expensive test that they cannot afford.

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