Sleep Apnea and its Role in Trucking Accidents

The research is now definitive: Commercial drivers are all too often impaired in their driving performance as a result of the medical condition of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a medical syndrome that is caused by the complete, or near complete, obstruction of the upper airway by redundant tissue and/or relaxed musculature just above the vocal cords. People who suffer from sleep apnea often suffer from dangerously low oxygen content levels while sleeping. When this occurs, the person briefly wakes up and usually gasps to draw air into the lungs. The person then falls back asleep, unaware they had awakened. A sleep apnea affected person often repeats this cycle hundreds of times a night, never allowing the deep sleep necessary for true mental and physical rest to occur. They are then sleep deprived, and because of their medical condition they never “catch up” on their sleep.

The statistics are sobering. It is estimated up to 25% of professional drivers (drivers of 18 wheelers and big rigs) may suffer from this treatable condition. In fact, professional drivers may be up to four or five times as likely to suffer from sleep apnea as compared to the general population. And when left untreated, a driver is approximately seven times more likely to be involved in a vehicle crash. One study indicates that sleep apnea and sleep deprivation — routinely sleeping less than five hours per night — can be compared to driving with a .08 blood alcohol level (legally intoxicated).

But a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (funded in part by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) found truck drivers are resistant to testing and treatment for sleep apnea. This is a major concern for the rest of the driving population on our roads and highways in our country. Our federal government should strongly consider mandatory obstructive sleep apnea screening for commercial drivers who meet certain medical criteria. In my next piece, I will write more on why truck drivers are so much more predisposed to sleep apnea.