Sleep Apnea: Hidden Cause of Commercial Truck Crashes

Drowsy driving kills more people on America’s highways than distracted driving, a top sleep expert recently told a motor carrier safety advisory panel.

But Dr. Charles Czeisler of Harvard University Medical School says sleep apnea gets a lot less attention than other factors in deadly accidents involving tractor-trailers, but accounts for one in five crashes.

The number of Americans who died in commercial truck crashes grew slightly to about 4,000 last year, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator recently told Congress.

View Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Spotlight on Sleep Apnea

“I would argue that fatigue as a causal factor in truck-involved crashes is underreported, not over-reported,” said Don Osterberg, vice president of Safety for Schneider National Trucking. “Absent the commercial driver acknowledging that he or she fell asleep, law enforcement doesn’t record the crash as fatigue-related.”

Sleep apnea – the absence of breath during sleep – interrupts deep sleep and leads to prolonged sleepiness. Commercial drivers are easily treated, typically with a breathing machine. But an estimated 85 percent of cases are undiagnosed. Some truckers fear losing their jobs and don’t want to pay for expensive tests. Often, medical examiners fail to pick up on the signs of sleep apnea.

The results can be devastating.

On July 30, near Anderson, S.C., a tractor-trailer jackknifed and crossed the median on I-85, killing the driver and two others, a 38-year-old truck driver Clay LeShawn Johnson of Charlotte and attorney Jeremy Scott Wilson, 33, who practiced in Lincolnton.

Although the coroner found that the trucker who ran off the road, Eddie Wyatt, 69, of Rockmart, Ga., suffered from sleep apnea and had only recently returned to driving, the official accident report identifies “improper lane usage” as the primary factor in the crash and makes no mention of fatigue.

“It could have been avoided,” said Dana Johnson, Clay LeShawn Johnson’s widow. “My first thought was why was he allowed to drive?”

On Oct. 13, along I-85 in Gaston County, one 18-wheeler slammed into the back of a second tractor-trailer in a fiery crash, killing one driver and shutting down the southbound lanes for the better part of a day.

Gastonia Police released the accident report this week, saying the surviving driver was travelling only 32 mph in the left lane when he was struck at 1:47 am, killing the oncoming driver, 45-year-old Eddie Fitzgerald Lee of Greenville, S.C.

The company that owned the slow-moving truck, Saga Freight Logistics of Brownsville, Texas, received 64 fatigue-related violations in the last two years and ranked in the bottom 2 percent of the nation in “hours of service” violations.

Gastonia Police declined to comment on the role of fatigue in the October accident, pending the District Attorney’s decision of whether to prosecute.

Efforts to change rules

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has tried to reduce driver fatigue by limiting hours of service to 11 hours each day, with a proposed decrease to 10 hours each day to allow for rest.

But those with sleep apnea can spend a full eight hours in bed and get back behind the wheel as sleepy as if they got only a few hours of sleep, according to experts who testified before a motor carrier safety advisory committee.

The advisory panel, and a panel of medical experts, is considering a recommendation that the DOT ask medical examiners to screen severely obese truckers for sleep apnea before giving them a biannual medical certificate that allows them to drive.

Source: Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

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