In my work as a truck accident lawyer, I have handled many cases involving driver fatigue and hours-of-service violations. I support efforts to include screening for Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) in FMCSA-mandated, semi-annual driver medical screenings.
It’s widely known that the obesity epidemic in America is a major contributing factor to the decline in our overall health as a nation. What isn’t as well known is that there is a link between obesity and the driver fatigue that is a major cause of truck accidents on our highways.
A new study conducted by Cambridge Health Alliance (http://www.challiance.org/) and published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (http://www.joem.org) subjected commercial truck drivers to screenings for a dangerous syndrome known as obstructive sleep apnea or OSA. OSA disrupts sleep and results in daytime sleepiness, sleep attacks or ‘nodding off’, impaired psychomotor ability, and poor decision-making ability. The study reports that approximately 2.4 – 3.9 million licensed commercial drivers in the U.S. are expected to have OSA, which is an alarming statistic to those of us who must share the roadways with those drivers!
The study’s senior author, Stefanos N. Kales, MD, MPH, Medical Director of Employee and Industrial Medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance said, “Truck drivers with sleep apnea are much more likely to fall asleep at the wheel, and the condition is increasingly common as Americans become more obese.”
The 15-month study subjected 456 commercial truck drivers to screenings developed as criteria for use in driver medical exams that would help identify those who are likely sufferers of OSA. Of the 456 drivers screened, 78 met the study’s criteria for suspected OSA, 53 were referred for follow-up sleep studies — but only 20 complied. You read that right: 53 drivers were referred for further testing because they were suspected of having a sleep disorder that could cause them to fall asleep at the wheel, and only 20 of them showed up for further testing. Of the 20 who did comply, all 20 were confirmed to have OSA.
Dr. Kales of Cambridge Health Alliance states that noncompliance by drivers is common. “[W]e found that drivers who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea frequently underreport symptoms and diagnoses and often do not follow through with sleep study referrals and sleep apnea treatment.”
Licensed commercial drivers are required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to obtain medical certification at least every two years, but Dr. Kales stated, “It is very likely that most of the drivers who did not comply with sleep studies or sleep apnea treatment sought medical certification from examiners who do not screen for sleep apnea and are driving with untreated or inadequately treated sleep apnea.”
Kales and his Cambridge Health Alliance colleagues concluded from the study that the risks to public safety from non-compliant or undiagnosed drivers warrant federally mandated screening of commercial drivers.
I couldn’t agree more.
For attorneys who wish to understand the science behind sleep deprivation when representing the victims of tractor-trailer accidents, please refer to my book Litigating Truck Accident Cases, published by West/AAJ press. Chapter 3 of the book is titled Driver Fatigue: A Sleep Specialist’s Perspective by William C. Diment. Dr. Diment, M.D., Ph.D. is undisputedly the world’s foremost expert on sleep deprivation. He has remained on the forefront of sleep research since coining the phrase “rapid eye movement” or REM over 50 years ago. Dr. Diment’s chapter in my book explains sleep debt and how it affects truck drivers and others. You can find more information at http://www.truckaccidents.com/about/Litigating-Truck-Accident-Cases.aspx