The safety risks posed by fatigued truck drivers are many and varied. Big rigs operated by tired truckers may rear-end other vehicles. Sometimes, jack-knifed semis wreak havoc across multiple lanes on freeways. In other cases, tired truckers actually fall asleep at the wheel. Those in the path of an out-of-control 18-wheeler face a strong possibility of car accidents causing serious injury or worse.
Untreated sleep apnea is one cause of fatigued driving. A recently published study provides evidence that truck drivers with untreated sleep apnea pose a significant safety risk.
Sleep Apnea Common
According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than 18 million Americans have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The organization says that untreated sleep apnea leads to drowsy driving. In 2010, the American Automobile Association (AAA) estimated that drowsy driving caused 16.5 percent of fatal traffic accidents. The AAA study further estimated that 12.5 percent of all accidents involving injuries that required hospitalization were the result of drowsy driving.
Truckers and Sleep Apnea
Now, a new study focuses attention on one specific cause of serious accidents caused by sleep-deprived truck drivers. According to recent research, truckers with sleep apnea that do not follow prescribed therapies represent a significantly higher crash risk.
The adverse impact of untreated sleep apnea on driving safety is the subject of the study posted on the website of the journal Sleep on March 21, 2016, and reported by Science Daily. The lead author was Dr. Stephen V. Burks, the principal investigator of the Truckers And Turnover Project at the University of Minnesota – Morris.
This was the largest study to date regarding sleep apnea and commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers. Researchers analyzed the performance of 1,613 truck drivers with sleep apnea and another 1,613 control subjects. To improve the quality of the results obtained, researchers matched the control subjects by tenure and job experience.
Truckers diagnosed with sleep apnea received positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy. They were provided with an automated machine that could be used at home and in sleeper berths. Each machine’s memory chip recorded a history of use that researchers later analyzed to establish how well each trucker followed his or her prescribed PAP therapy. That is, the internal memory chips provided objective data regarding the subjects’ adherence to prescribed sleep apnea treatment.
Five-fold Increase in Crash Risk
The study showed evidence of a dramatic increase in crash risk among drivers who failed to adhere to prescribed PAP treatment protocols. In fact, these truck drivers were five times more likely to be involved in serious, preventable crashes. By contrast, those who adhered to, or at least partially adhered to prescribed sleep apnea protocols experienced crash rates similar to those of the controls.
Remedies Proposed to Address Problem
Dr. Burks says the study’s results support the use of sleep apnea screening as part of a commercial trucker’s medical exam. At present, federal regulations depend on truckers to self-report sleep apnea at standard medical exams that determine their fitness to remain on the job.
In response to the study, the President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Dr. Nathaniel Watson, said that,
“It is critical for transportation companies to implement comprehensive sleep apnea screening and treatment programs to ensure that truck drivers stay awake at the wheel.”
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