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Untreated Sleep Apnea in Truck Drivers

Tractor-trailer drivers and other commercial drivers have a constant problem getting enough sleep each night.  From long hours on the road to the normal problems falling asleep that many Americans struggle with daily. Truck drivers face a whole list of reasons why they do not get enough sleep. One reason that many truck drivers do not get enough sleep, or do not get the quality of sleep that they need is because of a condition known as sleep apnea.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Everyone knows the feeling when they have not had enough sleep the night before. A person who has not had enough sleep may feel tired, groggy, and have trouble focusing. Imagine if you had to do this while driving a vehicle that weighed over 50,000 pounds.

Sleep apnea is a medical condition that happens when a person sleeps and disrupts the normal sleep cycles. Sleep apnea is characterized as a sleep disorder in which breathing is temporarily and repeatedly interrupted. This interruption in the normal breathing cycle can cause fragmented sleep as well as lower than normal oxygen levels in the blood. The effects of sleep apnea have a great impact on a person’s well being and can lead to hypertension, heart disease, shifts in overall mood, and memory problems.  One of the most troubling side effects of sleep apnea is that it can lead to drowsy driving, and to drivers falling asleep behind the wheel.

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There are two types of sleep apnea. The first being known as central sleep apnea in which the brain fails to properly control breathing during the sleep cycles. However, this type of sleep apnea is rather rare. The second type of sleep apnea that plagues drivers is known as obstructive sleep apnea. This type of sleep apnea is far more common that central sleep apnea. However, just because it is more common does not mean that it is easy to live with.  Obstructive sleep apnea occurs as a result of the muscles in the back of the throat failing to keep the airway open. The muscles in the back of the throat can literally obstruct the breathing of a sleeping person who may have otherwise no problems.

Statistics about Sleep Apnea Related Crashes

Recently, the University of Minnesota conducted a study on the effects of sleep apnea on drivers as well as how treatment could affect the driver’s ability to function during the day. This study examined more than 1600 drivers who were either diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and compared them to an equal number of truck drivers who did not have OSA or who had a low probability of having the condition. The study wanted to examine if those drivers who had obstructive sleep apnea could decrease their likelihood of being in a serious preventable crash by increasing the quality of their sleep. The 1600 truck drivers who were diagnosed with OSA were giving a thorough medical examination and exceptional medical treatment. As part of the treatment drivers with OSA were given a mask with an air pump that if properly worn during sleep would keep the airway open, by automatically adjusting the positive airway pressure. Electronic devices were used to ensure that they continued to work throughout the evening monitored these machines.

The results of this study revealed a starting discovery. Those who had sleep apnea but refused to undergo treatment, or who did not adhere to their treatment in the manner proscribed by doctors were the cause of 70 preventable serious truck accidents. Out of the equal number of drivers that did not have sleep apnea and therefore did not have to undergo treatment, there was a drastically different statistic for the number of preventable serious traffic accidents. Those drivers who did not have sleep apnea cause approximately 14 preventable crashes in the same time frame as those 1600 drivers who had sleep apnea.

Truck Drivers falling Asleep at the Wheel

Truck drivers have become notorious in the past few decades for falling asleep at the wheel. It seems that every day there is another news report of a driver falling asleep at the wheel and causing an injury.  In fact, it has been noted that at least 13 percent of all tractor-trailer accidents occur because the truck driver was fatigued.

Take for example an accident that happened on July 11th, 2016 in Campbell County Virginia. The Virginia state police reported that there were six people injured on route 460 because a tractor-trailer driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into the back of a church van.

Even more recent was the tractor-trailer accident that occurred in Alaska which was a result of a tractor-trailer driver falling asleep behind the wheel.

Impact of Sleep Apnea on Drivers

Truck drivers who are not rested pose a threat to every driver’s safety on the road. The standard tractor-trailer is several times heavier than a standard passenger car, and requires absolute attention in addition to a high degree of skill to driver. Therefore, when a driver is not paying attention even for a moment they can drift into oncoming traffic or drift off the side of the road. If a driver falls asleep behind the wheel of their tractor-trailer then they are putting their lives and the lives of every other driver on the road with them in the line of danger.

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The University of Minnesota study looked at 1,000 truck drivers with sleep apnea out of the 1600 truck drivers in their study as they worked over an entire year and drove in excess of 100,000 miles to determine that those who did not undergo the proper treatment were several times more likely to cause a preventable accident.

Recently, the United States Department of Transportation undertook the task of addressing how to advise and regulate those truck drivers who are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea.  Jon Anderson, professor of statistics, who worked in conjunction with Stephen Burks the lead author of the study states that he “expect[ed] our sleep apnea findings will be carefully considered in the rulemaking process on sleep apnea standards for truck drivers and train operators.”

This study which was published in late March of 2016 in the journal Sleep suggests that those drivers who have already been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea be required to undergo continuous treatment. The study also suggest that because of the greater correlation between drivers with sleep apnea and serious preventable accidents, that driver should undergo a sleep apnea screening every two years.

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