“If you could have seen the scene that killed my husband … or any of the other scenes that have been tied to sleep apnea and truck wrecks, it does look like a war zone,” said Wanda Lindsay of New Braunfels, Texas in a public meeting about the dangers of sleep apnea to commercial truck drivers. “It looks like a truck suicide bomber had gone through the area when John was killed.”
Wanda and her husband were stopped in construction-zone traffic on a Texas highway last year when a Celadon tractor trailer traveling 65 mph on cruise control smashed into the back of their vehicle. John died, but his wife lived on to become a crusader in the fight to raise awareness about the dangers obstructive sleep apnea pose to commercial drivers. The driver of the truck that collided with the Lindsays had been diagnosed with severe sleep apnea and displayed all of the signs and symptoms of the disorder.
Mrs. Lindsay participated in the public comment section of a recent meeting between the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee and the Medical Review Board to develop guidance on how commercial drivers should be handled in the event of sleep apnea diagnosis. Once finalized, the panel will present its recommendations to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which may use them to shape new safety polices and regulations.
Sleep apnea is a major concern for the FMCSA and the trucking industry. About one-third of all commercial truck drivers suffer from the condition, characterized by punctuated, shallow breathing while sleeping, and disrupted sleep. Sleep apnea patients experience lowered alertness, drowsiness, slower responses, and other symptoms that can and often do prove deadly behind the wheel of a moving truck.
In its meeting, the government advisory panel recommended sleep apnea screenings for obese commercial truck drivers whose body mass index (a measure of body fat proportional to height) ranked 35 or higher. Failing a sleep apnea screening test could lead to a commercial truck driver’s immediate disqualification if he or she has fallen asleep at the wheel or had a fatigue-related crash. Drivers with a clean record would get a 60-day conditional license during sleep apnea evaluation and treatment.
According to Dr. Charles Czeisler, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, a person with sleep apnea is 242 times more likely to crash while driving than a person without the disorder. Fatigued driving also kills more people on U.S. highways than distracted driving, he said.
Dr. Czeisler added that sleep apnea accounts for one in five tractor-trailer crashes, evn though the disorder gets a lot less attention than distracted driving and other fatal-crash factors. Commercial truck crashes killed about 4,000 people last year – up from 3,380 in 2009.
Photo by Phil Konstantin