Friday, December 16, 2011

Let’s get real

Medical professionals, many who stand to benefit from such a regulation, continue to beat the drum that most truck drivers should be tested for sleep apnea.

I have a short reply:

Americans are 10 times more likely to die because of a medical professional’s error than they are in a crash with a truck.

Let that sink in.

As Land Line reported last week, advisory boards including the FMCSA Medical Review Board approved recommendations that all truck drivers with a body mass index of 35 or greater be evaluated for obstructive sleep apnea.

Some studies estimate U.S. patient deaths by medical errors in at least the tens of thousands, making Americans 50 times more likely to die at the hand of a doctor than by a truck crash.

The annual fatalities tied to wrecks involving commercial vehicles has hovered near the 4,000 mark for years, actually improving the past few years and dropping below 4,000. That 4,000 figure includes any wreck in which a commercial vehicle was involved, including when the driver of a motorcycle or passenger car is killed while rear-ending a stopped truck.

Ben Hoffman is chairman of FMCSA’s Medical Review Board and the chief medical officer for GE and. Yes – that GE – the one that manufactures CPAP machines.

Hoffman took control of last week’s meeting, denigrating opposing viewpoints and largely ignoring anyone who didn’t agree with his opinion that most overweight truckers likely have sleep apnea and need CPAPS specifically to treat the affliction.

I’m stunned that Hoffman apparently doesn’t feel he may have a conflict of interest.

For fans of the NBC show “30 Rock,” this would be a bit like Jack Donaghy, the fictional TV character played by Alec Baldwin as GE’s president of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming overseeing a federal advisory board that regulates television. Well, regulates television and microwaves – and can require millions of Americans to purchase more microwaves.

But I’ll say it again – Americans are at least 10 times more likely to be killed by a medical professional than by a truck wreck – even a wreck caused by you.

After the Medical Review Board voted to recommend drivers with a BMI of 35 undergo expensive testing, OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer told me he doesn’t disagree that health problems exist for most Americans, including truckers.

The problem is, no one is looking at factors that affect driver rest for all drivers – no matter their body mass index.

Issues like hours-of-service rules that discourage a driver for pulling over and taking a nap when they’re tired, or shippers and receivers who can make a driver wait for hours to be loaded or unloaded.

Board members shouldn’t be able to recommend changes that would directly benefit members’ employers.

“Realistically, the conflict of interest in the makeup of that group is just absolutely glaring,” Spencer said. “They by no means have an objective viewpoint. The Medical Review Board has an economic interest tied to this particular issue.”

The Medical Review Board includes some individuals with lengthy academic resumes. It’s too bad the board still includes no one with knowledge of or background in trucking.

I interviewed the previous Medical Review Board chairman about both the higher number of deaths from medical errors and the conflict of interest issues two years ago. Read the interview by clicking here.

Now just hold on a minute

If you think the National Traffic Safety Board is going too far in recommending a ban on hand-held phones and texting in all vehicles, you better hope they don’t see research that indicates the, um, hydraulic pressure that builds up after drinking coffee or soda and being in the cab for several hours is as distracting as being drunk or sleep-deprived.

Researchers in Australia – where they know a thing or two about being tipsy – found that when your bladder gets really full, to the point that you worry about every little bump in the road, your concentration and memory just let go.

Sadly, if the feds hear about this, I could see them putting the squeeze on commercial drivers first. Not only are you easy targets, but it'll be payback for those nasty jugs left all over America.

Some whiz-bang engineer will come up with a Bluetooth-enabled remote hydraulic sensor in the seatbelt sync’ed to your dashboard info center.

As the diesel needle drops, the personal pressure needle creeps upward until there’s a warning chime telling you it’s time for a pit stop.

Ignore it too long, and maybe there'll be a fault code for your safety manager to download. How humiliating would it be for all concerned if the next safety meeting included potty training – and you’re on the hot seat.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wreaths at Fort Leavenworth

Another successful “Truckers for Troops” campaign has drawn to a close, and naturally many of us at OOIDA are thinking of the troops in combat zones. But veterans are also very much on our minds. In the past month, there have been a number of stories on an event called “Wreaths Across America.”

Fort Leavenworth cemetery
(Photo by Grant Andersen)
The latest Land Line story was about the U.S. Senate unanimously passing a resolution to designate Saturday, Dec.10 as “Wreaths Across America Day.”

“Wreaths Across America” took place this past Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery and at more than 700 cemeteries in all 50 states where almost 325,000 wreaths were placed at the tombstones of veterans.

Having read so much about this tradition started 20 years ago by the owners of the Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, ME, I wanted to participate this year. And I wanted to do so at the historic Fort Leavenworth cemetery in Kansas, one of the original 14 national cemeteries.

Saturday was a cold, sunny day as my 24-year-old son, Grant, and I set out.

We pulled up to the military base checkpoint and noted that all the vehicles in the visitor lane were being inspected, especially a pickup loaded with hay. My car was full of papers, magazines and books – the normal detritus of a copy editor’s commute.

Commemorative wreath (Photo by Grant Andersen)
When I showed our driver’s licenses, I was asked why we were going on base. When I said we were attending the laying of wreaths ceremony for “Wreaths Across America,” the soldier stepped back, wished us a nice day and waved our uninspected car on.

We parked and were bemused to see half a dozen young people in Revolutionary War uniforms pile out of an SUV and grab their weapons. They were the color guard for the ceremony, members of the Junior ROTC corps at Leavenworth High school.

Near the flagpole we were soon surrounded by riders of the Kansas Patriot Guard, Gold Star mothers (whose sons or daughters died while serving the nation), soldiers and veterans in uniform, and other members of the public.

Placing of the wreaths. (Photo by Elizabeth Andersen)
The brief ceremony, which was timed to coincide with the Arlington event, included the color guard, a moment of prayer, and the ceremonial laying of eight wreaths commemorating each branch of the military, prisoners of war and those identified as missing in action, and Gold Star families.

We were invited to lay wreaths on graves in a specific section of the cemetery.

As Diana Pitts, a Gold Star mother and the organizer of the ceremony, told the Fort Leavenworth Lamp newspaper, “It’s important to place a wreath on someone’s grave that hasn’t been visited in awhile. ... When it comes to veterans, it’s important to do our best job to recognize all of them, to bring remembrance to those whose Christmases can no longer be spent here on Earth.”

It was moving to see people standing in line quietly to receive the wreaths and saying thank you every time before walking to the graves and carefully placing the wreaths at the base of the tombstones.

A moment of remembrance. (Photo by Elizabeth Andersen)
My son and I each placed three wreaths and then were reluctant to leave. It was a beautiful sight: the serried rows of white tombstones enlivened by the greenery and red ribbons, the dress blues and camouflage of uniforms, the Patriot Guards’ motorcycle gear and children’s colorful winter coats.

There was such reverence about the scene that I was reminded of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC in 2002. My sons were teenagers, and their father had served stateside in the Navy during the Vietnam War. I remember when the Wall was designed the controversy over Maya Lin’s design and how it was derided as a “gash in the earth.”

My sons and I had watched a documentary about the Wall, so we were prepared. I was not prepared, however, for tears to start running down my face as we walked downward beside the polished black granite and listened to the hushed voices around us and saw people reaching forward to touch their loved ones’ names.

That’s how I felt this past Saturday at Fort Leavenworth. You had to be there.