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The dangers of driving around commercial trucks

June 30, 2012 by Steven M. Gursten

How truckers with sleep apnea put you at serious risk of being involved in a truck accident

There are serious dangers that arise anytime your car gets near a commercial truck. The danger is that many commercial truck drivers are likely very fatigued, drowsy and inattentive, and even likely to fall asleep at the wheel. This is because many of them have sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea causes preventable truck crashes. Truck drivers with sleep apnea driving behind the wheel of 80,000 pound tractor trailers cause hundreds of truck accident deaths every year (approximately 5,000 people a year are killed in truck accidents across the United States).

While the trucking industry has long been aware of the problem, MANY TRUCKING COMPANIES ARE NOT SCREENING TRUCK DRIVERS FOR SLEEP APNEA. The concern, from speaking privately to many safety managers, is that they can lose too many drivers. So, instead of screening for sleep apnea, these trucking companies and safety managers are just telling drivers “don’t drive tired.” The results of this willful ignorance is a lot of destroyed lives.

I speak nationally to lawyers on trucking cases, and one of the things I’ve been pushing these lawyers to do is to bring counts for punitive damages where allowed when there seems to be a willful blindness to this practice by trucking companies. In the meantime, people continue to die.

I’ve written about this issue many times before. In one recent blog post, Trucking companies must aggressively screen drivers for sleep apnea, I referenced an NPR statistic stating that much as 30 percent of American drivers are believed to have sleep apnea. That’s terrifying. And that is a major safety threat on our roads that endangers us all.

Sleep apnea is in fact so prevalent in the trucking industry that the government tells commercial drivers on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) website, that:

A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and sponsored by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the American Transportation Research Institute of the American Trucking Associations found that almost one-third (28 percent) of commercial truck drivers have mild to severe sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a breathing-related sleep disorder that causes brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. These pauses in breathing can last at least 10 seconds or more and can occur up to 400 times a night. Sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that often goes unrecognized and undiagnosed.

How can sleep apnea affect your driving?

Because sleep apnea affects your sleep, it also affects your daytime alertness and performance. Untreated sleep apnea can make it difficult for you to stay awake, focus your eyes, and react quickly while driving. In general, studies show that people with untreated sleep apnea have an increased risk of being involved in a fatigue-related motor vehicle crash.

Many sleep apnea patients say they never fall asleep while driving. That may be true. But remember, you don’t have to fall asleep to have a crash. You simply have to be inattentive or less alert — and with untreated sleep apnea; you are not as sharp as you should be.

Think about this risk next time you’re driving near a commercial truck, and drive extra defensively. Now that the trucking industry is raising more awareness of sleep apnea causing truck accidents, it’s time for trucking companies to take responsibility and screen their drivers.


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