In an effort to lower the rate of sleep apnea-related truck accidents, the USDOT is making a strong push toward mandatory testing of all commercial truck drivers, bus drivers, and railroad workers to screen for OSA.
“It’s imperative for everyone’s safety that commercial motor vehicle drivers and train operators be fully focused and immediately responsive at all times,” stated U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
But not everyone is convinced that sleep apnea is a chronic issue in the trucking industry, or whether the existing research is credible.
“There is insufficient data linking OSA and higher crash rates,” countered Norita Taylor, a spokesperson for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “OSA testing can also be quite costly to drivers, both in terms of dollars and time, and if required by a Certified Medical Examiner, is rarely covered by standard medical insurance.”
Part of the problem with any proposal that USDOT recommends is that no one is sure whether mandatory testing would apply to current truck drivers, or new drivers only.
And if it does apply to current drivers, what would be the procedure if testing reveals that a driver has sleep apnea?
Although this latest push makes it seem as if this is a new issue, mandatory sleep apnea testing is something the USDOT has grappled with for several years.
In 2013, the FMCSA pressured Congress to make a law requiring sleep apnea screening, but the powerful trucking lobby spent millions opposing the measure, and delayed implementation of the law by requiring a formal process, which often takes years.
Lost in all the debate is the fact that once diagnosed, sleep apnea is very treatable with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device.
The machine features a mask and tube that transmits air into the nose and mouth and prevents the breathing blockage that afflicts people who suffer from sleep apnea.
“One of the biggest problems of OSA is excessive fatigue,” said Dr. Nathaniel Watson, former President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and a board certified neurologist and sleep expert. “And so clearly for anybody working in a safety-sensitive position where alertness is crucial to public safety, this is the type of illness that would be a major public health concern if it were not addressed.”
Beyond the potential benefits of lowering the rate of truck accidents caused by fatigued drivers, Watson said that treating sleep apnea could also prevent other illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, that are all linked to sleep apnea.
The American Trucking Associations (ATA), the leading member organization for truck drivers, has taken a wait-and-see attitude with the proposed governmental legislation.
“Right now there’s not a lot of solid data,” said Megan Bush, Safety Policy Manager for the ATA, “and considering that it could impose some significant costs on not just the industry, but drivers and eventually down the supply chain to consumers, we think it’s very important that they have a real understanding not only of the problem, but whether the benefits will outweigh the costs.”