Sleep is top safety concern in the transportation industry. The public demands that drivers be well-rested before taking commercial vehicles on the road, and trucking companies understand it’s imperative to prevent accidents, but regulations that enforce required sleep minimums aren’t always the answer.
There is increasing industry recognition that among the many conditions for which anyone behind the wheel should be treated is sleep apnea — a disorder that can cause breathing to pause hundreds of time per night, triggering momentary wakefulness that leaves the sufferer feeling sleep deprived the following day. For drivers, this can result in fatigue, impaired judgment and slowed reaction times despite having had the required hours of sleep.
According to The Federal Motor Vehicle Carrier Safety Administration, up to 13 percent of accidents involving commercial trucks may be the direct result of drivers who are too tired to be working safely. What’s worse, the organization believes that truckers have a rate of sleep apnea up to four times higher than the general population, in part due to the lifestyle challenges of being on the road.
While a physician may declare a driver medically ineligible to drive due to an unsafe condition, the rules governing sleep apnea are vague. Since both the cost of testing for the disorder and the equipment necessary to treat it are cost-prohibitive for many, it’s likely that not all recommendations receive follow-up.
Unlike conditions such as diabetes, there are no simple tests that can show how a driver with sleep apnea is affected and if they’re compliant with prescribed treatment.
Industry experts suggest that changing how transportation companies see the threat of sleep apnea can help mitigate the risk. In addition to fears that apnea-associated symptoms may result in accidents, employers are also acknowledging the cost of fatigue in terms of productivity. Several major companies have realized significant health cost savings as well as performance improvements by implementing fatigue reduction programs that specifically include the treatment of sleep apnea.
Until there is a clear and fair regulatory solution to address the problem of sleep apnea among commercial drivers, preventing it’s potentially deadly consequences remains a partnership between drivers and their employers. With a collaborative effort, it can be a win for both the transportation industry and the public.