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Proposed trucker rule targets driver fatigue

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Requiring commercial truck drivers to be tested for sleep disorders could improve highway safety, but testing and managing treatment could prove an additional burden for drivers and motor carriers.

Commercial vehicle drivers are not required to be screened for obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder that disrupts sleep and causes excessive daytime sleepiness, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

The organization's Seattle-based president, Dr. Nathaniel F. Watson, is concerned about the lack of a test requirement for truckers to determine whether they have the disease. “People are dying on the roadways because people are falling asleep, and when that happens there are no evasive maneuvers or slowing down before the crash,” he said.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration, in an effort to address the issue, announced March 8 a joint advance notice of proposed rulemaking that would require truck drivers and rail workers to be tested, evaluated and treated for sleep apnea.

Richard Bleser, senior vice president and fleet specialty practice leader at Marsh Risk Consulting, a unit of Marsh L.L.C., in Milwaukee, said a majority of vehicle collisions are from drivers being sleepy or distracted and not paying attention. The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration estimates in a March report that more than 72,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year.

“We have seen some nuclear verdicts, large liability claim settlements, many of them coming from the vantage that the driver was fatigued,” he said.

Mr. Bleser also said every organization should have a fatigue management program. He acknowledged that fleets will face additional work if the requirement takes effect. “The challenge the industry will have is that if the test for sleep apnea becomes mandatory and a driver is diagnosed to have it, the motor carrier will take on liability and the responsibility to manage the driver in their off time to ensure they are using proper approaches to managing their issue,” he said.

In a March U.S. Department of Transportation statement, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx encouraged the public to comment on the issue within the 90 day period from March 8. “It is imperative for everyone's safety that commercial motor vehicle drivers and train operators be fully focused and immediately responsive at all times,” he said in the statement.

A University of Minnesota study highlighting the risks, which included 1,613 drivers who had obstructive sleep apnea, was published March 21. The “non-adherence with employer-mandated sleep apnea treatment and increased risk of serious truck crashes” study, which took place from 2006-2009, reported that drivers with sleep apnea who were not treated for it had “a five-fold greater preventable crash risk,” meaning the driver could have and should have taken actions that would have prevented the crash.

“I'm sure our study's evidence will be considered, and I also think it will be a scientifically challenging process to figure out what kind of regulation should be in place, but I believe there should be some regulation,” said University of Minnesota, Morris-based economics professor Stephen V. Burks, the lead author of the study and a former truck driver.

Jamie Wilson, a Huntsville, Alabama-based senior risk engineering consultant and transportation specialist at Zurich North America, was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2010. He knows that the testing and diagnosis can be expensive and time consuming, making it a challenge for commercial truck drivers to complete the program.

“The three issues that are the biggest barriers to lowering the risk of sleep apnea among truck drivers are convenience, cost and culture,” he said.

Mr. Wilson said the current method of diagnosis requires numerous visits to a sleep specialist over several weeks, which can be difficult to fit into a driver's schedule. He recommends that trucking companies explore alternative methods such as take-home tests or working with a local physician to reduce delays in diagnosis and treatment. The cost of the tests is also high, so he recommends trucking companies review their medical insurance plan to make sure it covers sleep studies, he said.

Mr. Wilson said the biggest challenge may be getting transportation companies to change the culture of their fatigue management programs and to start working to include sleep apnea before regulations take effect because “any new regulation regarding sleep apnea will affect every trucking company, regardless of size.”

Dr. Watson recognizes the concern among commercial drivers that being diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea could impair their livelihood, but he said he would rather they viewed it as an opportunity to improve their health and quality of life.

“It's everybody's responsibility to be awake at the wheel,” he said, “not only for their own safety but for the safety of others,” he said.