In May of 2010, John and Wanda Lindsay were stopped in traffic in a construction zone on Interstate 30 near Texarkana when a semi-truck crashed into the back of their vehicle. John died as a result of the accident and in the legal battles that emerged in the aftermath of the accident his widow has learned that the accident might have been avoidable: the driver of the truck that hit them had sleep apnea. Just this last summer, she set up the nonprofit “John Lindsay Foundation” to raise awareness of the dangers of sleep apnea in the commercial trucking industry.
Sleep apnea is a breathing-related sleep disorder that causes brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration estimates that as many as 28% of commercial driver’s license holders suffer from sleep apnea. The problem for these drivers—and for the safety of our roads—is that sleep apnea deprives an individual of sleep during the night. This results in daytime drowsiness and a host of other symptoms, including falling asleep at inappropriate times and lack of concentration. For commercial truck drivers, where driver fatigue is already an issue even for healthy drivers, this can be dangerous and even deadly. At least one study has concluded that the impact of untreated sleep apnea on driver performance is comparable to the performance of drivers whose blood alcohol concentrations are above federal limits for driving commercial vehicles.
While there are some safety regulations in place, they likely do not go far enough to ensure safety on the road. While each state sets its own medical standards required for driving a commercial motor vehicle within the confines of the state, most have determined that moderate to severe sleep apnea is a disqualifying condition. That is the same standard that federal law sets for commercial vehicle drivers that operate in multiple states. Yet, part of the problem with sleep apnea is that those who suffer from it are often completely unaware that they have it. Thus, the National Transportation Safety Board ,in 2009, recommended that federal standards be strengthened to control the dangers of sleep apnea in commercial drivers. Among the recommendations were to:
- Create a program to identify drivers at high risk for sleep apnea and special medical certification for those drivers identified.
- Develop and provide guidance for commercial drivers, their employers and physicians regarding the identification and treatment of sleep apnea.
Being awake and alert when you’re behind the wheel of a car is a question of life and death. Sleep apnea can affect all drivers, making it a highway safety issue for all of us. But it is particularly concerning for commercial truck drivers who already drive long hours, suffer driver fatigue in general, and are behind the wheel of several-ton trucks that can cause severe accidents.