Truck Drivers and Sleep Apnea

Federal Agency Looks at Safety Issues a panel of experts recently urged the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration – the agency charged with large truck and bus highway safety – to require that obese commercial drivers with body mass indices of 35 or more be tested for sleep apnea, a problem for millions of Americans.

The recommendations also include potential disqualification of commercial drivers who fall asleep at the wheel or are involved in fatigue-related truck accidents.

More common in men, obstructive sleep apnea is a common disorder that causes a person’s breathing during sleep to be shallow and interrupted because the airway is blocked in the throat area, often because of obesity. During interrupted breathing, the sleeper actually stops breathing for anywhere from a couple of seconds up to several minutes. Snoring is often a symptom.

According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, a person with sleep apnea may have over 30 breathing stoppages per hour, interrupting deep sleep and resulting in severe daytime tiredness and poor concentration. Obviously, these symptoms are dangerous to an over-the-road driver of a large commercial vehicle for whom alertness can be a problem under even normal circumstances.

Those with sleep apnea are also at higher risk of heart problems, stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Diagnosis is not easy and usually requires a sleep study using a polysomnogram that can pick up sensitive data during sleep like brain waves, eye and muscle movement, breathing and heart rate, blood pressure, lung capacity and oxygen levels.

Treatment may include weight loss, mouthpiece use, possible surgery and probable use of a CPAP machine that forces air into the throat through a face mask during sleep.

The recommendations to the FMCSA came out of a December 7, 2011, meeting of a joint subcommittee formed by two federal agency advisory bodies:

  • The DOT created the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee to advise the FMCSA about motor-carrier safety. The MCSAC has 19 members representing the trucking and bus industries, law and safety enforcement, and safety activists.
  • The FMCSA’s Medical Review Board consists of five distinguished doctors specializing in commercial drivers’ most important medical issues. The MRB advises federal transportation officials on “physical qualification standards” for truck and bus drivers.

At this point, if the FMCSA follows the subcommittee’s advice it would be in the form of guidance to medical examiners. More subcommittee work is scheduled for January 2012 and beyond with an eye toward possible future sleep-apnea regulations.

If you are injured in an accident with a large truck or bus, talk to an experienced personal injury attorney as early as possible to preserve your potential legal remedies and understand your options.

Busald Funk Zevely PSC

Busald Funk Zevely PSC