Thursday, March 10, 2016

Linking sleep apnea to crashes easier said than done

The Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration is examining the potential need for requiring truck drivers to undergo evaluation for obstructive sleep apnea.

So far, the FMCSA has done little to show that sleep apnea has caused a major safety problem within the trucking industry.

In the FMCSA’s and Federal Railroad Administration’s joint advance notice of proposed rulemaking that was published in the Federal Register on Thursday, March 10, the Department of Transportation provides only one instance of a tractor-trailer crash involving sleep apnea.

And that wreck occurred almost 16 years ago. In addition, there is no way to prove sleep apnea was the cause.

The July 26, 2000, wreck took place in a work zone along Interstate 40 in Jackson, Tenn. While the driver had been diagnosed with sleep apnea in 1997, he underwent surgery to correct the disorder about a month after the diagnosis. According to the National Transportation Safety Board accident report, the driver was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in 1998.

The NTSB also noted three safety issues involving the accident:
  • Lack of communication between the Tennessee Department of Transportation, its contractors, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
  • Inadequate planning and coordinating of traffic control responsibilities between highway construction personnel and law enforcement officers before engaging in work zone activities.
  • Need to train officers in safe traffic control procedures within highway work zones. 

No doubt, the accident was a tragedy. A Tennessee state trooper was killed, and the driver of a third vehicle was listed as seriously injured. However, there is no way to determine that sleep apnea was the cause for the truck driver’s incapacitation. Other factors and health conditions could have played a role. Plus, the NTSB listed the failures by the Tennessee DOT, the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the contractors as contributing factors to the accident.

Even if you do contend that sleep apnea contributed to this crash, knowing this 16-year-old incident is the only example provided by the FMCSA should be enough to create some doubt regarding the number of trucking safety issues involving the condition.  

According to statistics from “Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts 2013,” only 1.5 percent of all fatal crashes were related to drivers being asleep or fatigued. Plus, there’s no way to link all 1.5 percent of those crashes to sleep apnea.

“There is no statistical evidence in these data to suggest that the presence of sleep apnea significantly increases the likelihood or the risk of motor vehicle crashes,” Dr. Allan Pack of the University of Pennsylvania said in research published by the FMCSA.

The study also discovered “that there is no statistical evidence in the data to suggest that drivers with sleep apnea are more likely than drivers without sleep apnea to have a commercial vehicle crash.”

Without that link, it’s difficult to justify the cost of requiring truck drivers to undergo testing. The price of a polysomnogram can be about $2,000.

Unless it can be proven that testing every trucker with a big neck or a belly will save lives, a requirement doesn’t seem warranted.