Federal Safety Regulators May Require Sleep Apnea Screenings for Truck Drivers

Federal safety regulators may soon start screening commercial truck and bus drivers and merchant ship pilots for sleep apnea. Sleep is a sleep disorder in which the sleeper stops breathing during sleep. This often interrupts sleep and wakes up the individual. Federal investigators say that sleep apnea causes crashes by contributing to driver fatigue.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made sleep apnea screening recommendations for train operators and airline pilots earlier this year. Citing sleep apnea as the cause of several accidents, the NTSB recommended that medical examiners question drivers and pilots about the disorder.

According to the Associated Press, the NTSB cited the following accidents:

In January 2008, a motorcoach carrying passengers returning from a weekend ski trip went too fast around a curve on a rural Utah highway. The bus went careening down a mountainside, killing nine people and injuring 43 others. The driver suffered from sleep apnea and had trouble using a device to regulate his breathing while sleeping in the days before the accident.

The same month, two go! airlines pilots conked out for at least 18 minutes during a midmorning flight from Honolulu to Hilo, Hawaii, as their plane continued to cruise past its destination and out to sea. Air traffic controllers were finally able to raise the pilots, who turned the plane around with its 40 passengers and landed it safely. The captain was later diagnosed with sleep apnea.

A trolley train crashed into another train in May 2008 in Newton, Mass. Investigators said the driver probably fell asleep because she suffered from sleep apnea, but it could not be proved because she died.

In November 2001, a train engineer drove through a stop warning in Clarkston, Mich., striking another train and killing two crew members. He was found to be a very high risk for sleep apnea, but he had not been diagnosed or treated.

In June 1995, a cruise ship maneuvering through Alaska's Inside Passage was grounded on a submerged but charted and marked rock by a pilot later diagnosed with sleep apnea. The ship was carrying about 2,200 people.

A 2002 study estimated that 7 percent of adults have some form of sleep apnea. Screening for sleep apnea could save lives. Many people who suffer from sleep apnea are unaware that they have it. In typical cases of sleep apnea, a disruption in breathing causes the individual to wake up. The pauses in breathing typically last from 10 to 30 seconds. If it’s not treated, sleep apnea can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain, and several other health problems.

A Department of Transportation spokesperson said that the motor carrier administration is considering a rule to tighten medical standards for the certification of commercial truck and bus drivers.

Some experts like Dr. Dave Hnida believe that the application of such rules might prove challenging. Dr. Hnida said in an interview, “Identifying people who have sleep apnea will be difficult unless the person volunteers information about their snoring habits or if they experience excessive daytime drowsiness. Otherwise, sleep studies on everyone applying for a commercial driver’s license will be needed.”

Addressing the problem of sleep apnea and other sleep disorders among truck drivers is certainly a step in the right direction.

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