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FMCSA hits snooze on truck accidents caused by sleep apnea

November 30, 2017 by Steven M. Gursten

Trump Administration orders safety officials to stop trying to find a way to reduce truck accidents caused by drivers with sleep apnea

Truck accidents

Nearly 1 in 3 truckers on the road today have obstructive sleep apnea. This medical condition causes hundreds of otherwise preventable truck accidents every year in this country.

But President Trump apparently isn’t interested in trying to protect the public from drivers with obstructive sleep apnea.

The President has ordered the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) — whose “primary mission” is to “to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses” — to stop investigating this “serious, potentially life-threatening” medical condition among truck drivers.

Recently, the FMCSA withdrew its nearly 2½-year-old evaluation of a proposed rule “concerning …”:

“[T]he prevalence of moderate-to-severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) among individuals occupying safety sensitive positions in highway and rail transportation, and its potential consequences for the safety of highway and rail transportation.”

This dangerous move by the Trump Administration, which poses a serious threat to all of us and to all of our families is inexplicable given what the FMCSA already knows about how dangerous sleep apnea is:

  • “OSA [obstructive sleep apnea] remains an on-going concern for … the motor carrier … industr[y] because it can cause unintended sleep episodes and resulting deficits in attention, concentration, situational awareness, and memory, thus reducing the capacity to safely respond to hazards when performing safety sensitive duties.”
  • “Because sleep apnea affects [a trucker’s] sleep, it also affects [his or her] daytime alertness and performance. Untreated sleep apnea can make it difficult for [a trucker] to stay awake, focus [his or her] 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.”
  • “[A]lmost one-third (28 percent) of commercial truck drivers have mild to severe sleep apnea,” according to a study sponsored by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the American Transportation Research Institute of the American Trucking Associations.

(Sources: Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), “Evaluation of Safety Sensitive Personnel for Moderate-to-Severe Obstructive Sleep Apnea,” Proposed Rule, Docket Number FMCSA-2015-0419; FMCSA, “Driving When You Have Sleep Apnea”)

As a Michigan truck accident lawyer, I’m extremely disappointed by the Administration’s decision to stop the FMCSA from trying to find solutions to the sleep apnea problem among truckers, and thus reduce the number of clearly preventable truck wrecks that occur in this country where thousands of Americans are injured and killed every year.

In my blog post, “Should truck drivers with high BMI be required to take a sleep apnea test?,” where I called for “sleep apnea testing for people who are suspected to have it,” I highlighted the following fact:

“Sleep apnea is causing or contributing to thousands of preventable truck accidents every year.”

Sadly, that confirms what research has concluded about the crash risks of drowsy driving or sleep-deprived driving:

“Drivers who get less than five hours of sleep per night are nearly five times more likely to be involved in a car crash.”

How can obstructive sleep apnea contribute to truck accidents?

The FMCSA has observed that truckers “with untreated sleep apnea have an increased risk of being involved in a fatigue-related motor vehicle crash.”

Significantly, the FMCSA describes sleep apnea as follows:

  • “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.”

Is taking truckers with sleep apnea off the road the only way to effectively prevent sleep-related truck accidents?

No. Not if truck drivers have successfully completed treatment.

Truckers with moderate to severe sleep apnea are disqualified from driving under FMCSA standards and regulations because the “condition [is] likely to interfere with their ability to … safely … operate a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) in interstate commerce.”

However, once a trucker has successfully completed treatment and been deemed “medically-qualified-to-drive” by a certified medical examiner, he or she may resume driving a commercial motor vehicle.

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