Sleep Disorder Blamed in Many Fatal Truck Accidents

November 8, 2011

tired truck driver.jpgOdds are that if you are driving on an interstate highway, more than 25% of the tractor-trailers you see will be operated by a fatigued truck driver. This is because approximately 3 million U.S. truck drivers have what is called Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). OSA is characterized by sleep-disordered breathing that results in daytime sleepiness, sleep attacks, micro-sleeps, psychomotor deficits, and disrupted nighttime sleep. OSA dramatically increases a truck driver's risk of being involved in a fatal truck accident. Unfortunately, many truck companies continue to deny that many of their drivers suffer from OSA and refuse to conduct company sponsored screening for the disorder. The problem of fatigued truck drivers has been a deadly problem for years.

In 2008, the medical advisory panel of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration - the government agency that regulates the truck industry - recommended that companies screen their drivers for OSA. Very few truck companies have done anything to identify which of their drivers have OSA. One exception, is Schneider National Trucking.

Don Osterberg is the Vice-president of Safety at Schneider. He stated, "[s]o now we're three and a half years later and the DOT has taken no action." The lack of a federal regulation did not stop Schneider from taking responsibility for its drivers. Schneider screened all of its more than 2000 truck drivers. They discovered that a very significant percentage suffered from OSA. The great thing about this disease is "how effectively it can be treated," Osterberg said. Schneider's program is not perfect, but at least they have taken a huge step in the right direction. More screening and regular monitoring is needed throughout the trucking industry.

Many doctors treat sleep apnea with a device called a CPAP - for "continuous positive airway pressure." The CPAP delivers air through a tube and mask into the nose and mouth, thereby keeping the airway open and allowing the patient to maintain continuous deep sleep. Without the device, those with OSA literally stop breathing for short periods of time, and then when their oxygen level gets to a dangerous point, they wake themselves up enough to start breathing again. This cycle repeats over and over again each night, preventing the person from ever reaching the very important deep "REM" sleep.

As a result of Schneider's screening program, the company saw a 30 percent decline in the number of truck accidents over a 2 year period. This has resulted in dramatic savings for the company and it's insurer. The cost savings, in the number of innocent lives that have been saved by this program, is what is really important.

Many fatal truck accidents in North Carolina are the result of an overworked, and over-tired truck driver falling asleep at the wheel. We have seen this problem way too many times in our law firm. As we have discussed before, there are several tips you can follow that might prevent you from being in a truck accident:

1. If you have to pass a tractor-trailer, watch for signs that the truck driver might be fatigued such as weaving or erratic driving. If you observe any signs of fatigue, back off and do not attempt to pass.

2. If you are going to pass a tractor-trailer, then wait until you have a clear path to drive completely past the entire big rig and accelerate so that you do not get caught in the truck driver's blind spot. Do not allow yourself to get stuck beside a tractor-trailer.

3. If you have to stop on the highway because of traffic in front of you, leave room between your vehicle and the vehicles in front of you - so that you have an emergency escape route, and you should watch for approaching trucks.

4. Avoid driving late at night. Many truck drivers prefer to drive at night because traffic is lighter, and law enforcement has fewer officers patrolling the highways. Unfortunately, this is also when many tired truckers fall asleep at the wheel.

5. Report truck drivers who are weaving or driving erratically to law enforcement. In North Carolina, you can dial the State Highway Patrol on your cell phone by pressing *47 and then "send".

At Davis Law Group, we believe that the federal government should require each motor carrier to pay for OSA screening of each of its truck drivers, and then mandate treatment for those with OSA. This would save countless lives each year on our nation's highways.

Please drive safely out there!