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Asleep at the Wheel: How sleep apnea affects truck safety

Truck Driver Accident in Florida

Whatever you call them—semi-trucks, big rigs, or tractor-trailers—these transportation trucks are a big part of every American’s life, whether they know it or not. This is because semi-trucks are the predominate industry used to transport goods across the United States. Every time you buy a roll of paper towels, grab a taco from your favorite spot, or print a document at work, there is a good chance a truck was involved. And if so many things need to be transported, that means that there are a lot of trucks on the road. It is estimated that there are more than 15 million trucks transporting good across the country each year. With such a high number of trucks on the roads, accidents are bound to happen.

Because of the number of trucks, combined with their sheer weight and size, it only makes sense that we would want to ensure that this industry is as safe as possible. Whether or not there are enough regulations on the industry is a topic for another post. But another interesting fact affecting the safety of motorists and the trucking industry has recently come to light: how a truck driver’s health directly affects safety.

Trucking accidents are dangerous. Because of the size and weight of commercial trucks, most of the accidents that do occur result in severe injuries or fatalities for the unlucky motorist in the passenger vehicle.

And it’s not getting better on its own. In the past decade, the U.S. has seen a 20% increase in the number of truck accidents. This could be attributed to a few things: the upturn in the economy requiring more trucks on the road, changing regulations, or perhaps the increasing amount of truckers with sleep disorders and obesity-related illnesses.

A University of Minnesota study from this past March found that sleep apnea makes truck drivers more likely to be involved in a crash, especially if they aren’t properly treated for the condition. The study analyzed more than 1,600 U.S. truck drivers with sleep apnea. What they found is startling: A truck driver who has untreated sleep apnea has five times a greater risk of crashing than that of other drivers.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea (pronounced ap-ne-a) is a medical disorder in which a person experiences pauses in their breathing or shallow breaths while they sleep. The pauses in breathing can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes and may occur 30 times or more an hour. This means that a person may stop breathing for a brief moment every couple of minutes.

Sleep apnea is considered a chronic condition, meaning that it’s ongoing and not just an occasional event. One of the major effects of the disorder is that it disrupts a person’s sleep quality significantly. Every time a person’s breathing pauses or becomes shallow, they move out of deep, REM sleep and into a lighter, less restful sleep. Deep sleep, or REM sleep, is imperative to getting a restful, rejuvenating night’s sleep. This obviously has the effect of making those who suffer from the disorder more tired during the day. In fact, according to healthcare professionals, sleep apnea is a leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness.

Besides the obvious issue of a person’s breathing stopping while they sleep, it’s also alarming how often sleep apnea goes undiagnosed. This is because doctors usually can’t detect the condition during a routine office visit and no simple test can spot it. Instead, a person must visit a sleep specialist in which they spend night being monitored, often for multiple nights. To put it simply, the lack of conveniences in detection causes people not to be diagnosed as often as the issue occurs. Most people who have sleep apnea have no clue that they even have it because, well, they’re asleep. Often, it takes a person sharing their bed to notice the signs. When the person sleeping next to you stops breathing in their sleep, it tends to be noticeable.

Obesity and Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is often associated with obesity since the risk of developing the disorder rises dramatically with weight gain. Approximately two-thirds of all truck drivers are believed to be obese. Truckers are also much more likely to be overweight than people who work in other fields. If you combine these facts, there is an obvious issue. Truck drivers are more likely to obese, which means they are at a greater risk of having sleep apnea. This sleep deprivation then heightens their crash risks.

The effects of driving while fatigued have recently gained more attention, but this adds a new element to the problem. Even moderate tiredness can impair a driver’s abilities as much as being legally intoxicated. So when you take into account truck drivers getting less sleep than the average worker—due to work demandsand combine it with less restful sleep from apnea, the results can be disastrous.

What is being done?

The Federal Motor Safety Carrier Administration (FMCSA) is helping by requiring truck drivers to use a new medical health disclosure form that provides more detailed medical histories. The newly revised form makes drivers list their complete medical histories, rather than just illnesses or injuries from the past five years. In addition, the form also asks a series questions designed at assessing a trucker’s risk of obstructive sleep apnea. The form asks questions like, “Have you ever spent a night in the hospital? Have you ever had a sleep test? Do you feel tired after sleeping for eight hours?”

Law enforcement and transportation officials can help by more clearly documenting instances in which health conditions, such as sleep apnea, played a role in a crash. As it stands, very few states require this information to be collected.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine is also requesting transportation companies to start implementing their own comprehensive sleep apnea screening and treatment programs to ensure that truck drivers stay awake at the wheel.

Some in the trucking industry are resistant to this idea. If the problem is as widespread as experts believe it may be, then it could cost the industry big. Drivers would need to be screened as recommended above, take time off to be treated, and keep up with any management of the disorder.

This is really a significant find within the issue of truck accidents. If this is a problem with a clear-cut cause, as research suggests, then we should be doing something about it. There are effective treatments for sleep apnea, which could reduce the risks of fatalities on the road.

Dolman Law Group

At Dolman Law Group, we specialize in truck accident cases. We have the necessary network of attorneys and investigators to get to the heart of the problem. If a truck driver has fallen asleep at the wheel, there was probably negligence involved. We will find out. If you or someone you love has been injured in a commercial truck accident, contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at Dolman Law Group. You can call us at 727-853-6275 or contact us here.

DOLMAN LAW GROUP – NEW PORT RICHEY OFFICE

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New Port Richey, FL 34652

727-853-6275