Trucking reps dispute claims of link between apnea and crashes

Submitted by New Jersey Truck Crash Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

Members involved with the trucking, railroad and medical industries spoke out on the possibility of mandated sleep apnea testing during the first of three public listening sessions on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and Federal Railroad Administration published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to receive feedback about any potential obstructive sleep apnea regulations on March 10. The 90-day comment period ends June 8.

Veteran owner-operator and OOIDA Life Member Dick Pingel and the American Trucking Associations’ Megan Bush, were among those who questioned whether crash statistics supported the need for a sleep apnea regulation.

“You can’t determine if there is a link between sleep apnea and the risk of crashing,” said Pingel, who is from Plover, Wis., and has been trucking for more than 35 years. “A driver can be tired for many reasons. They may be physically tired after securing a load or mentally tired after having a rough day that was emotionally draining.”

Pingel, who has more than 3.25 million accident-free miles, said the cost to truck drivers is too much.

“If a certified medical examiner tells me I must get tested for some arbitrary reason such as neck size, that appointment requires time off the road,” Pingel said. “It would be based on an assumption that a driver with sleep apnea somehow poses a risk. A real risk is to replace me with a brand-new driver who has zero years of experience going over mountains and dealing with other drivers. CMEs are getting kickbacks for referrals. Drivers are being told they must be tested in a sleep lab, which costs thousands of dollars.

“I’m asking you to objectively evaluate information you receive to determine if there is a link between sleep apnea and crashes. You need to take action to ensure the drivers are not used as a bottomless ATM. That is an unfortunate reality that needs to stop so we can keep experienced drivers on the road for a very long career.”

According to research on sleep apnea published by FMCSA and authored by Dr. Allan Pack of the University of Pennsylvania, “there is no statistical evidence in these data to suggest that the presence of sleep apnea significantly increases the likelihood or the risk of motor vehicle crashes.”

In addition, the percentage of large truck crashes related to drowsiness, asleep at the wheel, and/or fatigue has been consistently low. According to Large Truck and Bush Crash Facts 2014, only 1.8 percent of crashes reported a fatigued or sleeping driver.

As part of the FMCSA’s and FRA’s advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, the Department of Transportation cited only one incident of an accident involving a tractor-trailer that was blamed on sleep apnea. The accident occurred 16 years ago, and the report indicated several other factors as potential causes of the crash.

“As with any regulation, requiring obstructive sleep apnea screening and treatment for commercial truck drivers should be based on sound data and analysis,” said Megan Bush, manager of safety policy for the ATA. “FMCSA must consider the prevalence of severe OSA among the workforce, the potential cost to drivers and the supply chain to address it, and the corresponding safety benefits of doing so.”

Bush also said that not all of the accidents that involve fatigue have anything to do with sleep apnea.

“We must determine how many of those crashes are the result of sleep disorders versus other causes, such as failure to obtain adequate and proper rest,” she said. “We’re against rushing to impose a hastily conceived rule given the potential impact on drivers and the supply chain. A cautious and informed approach is necessary.”

There were also several doctors who discussed the dangers of sleep apnea.

“Every cell in your body needs oxygen if you are depleting those because you can’t breathe and can’t exhale,” Dr. Richard Klein said. “If you don’t get the nutrition of oxygen, that cell deteriorates. … It causes Type 2 diabetes, concentration problems, high blood pressure, strokes. I could go on for hours. That is how valuable controlling sleep apnea is for the average person.”

Klein also touted oral appliances as an effective way to treat sleep apnea for individuals who are not comfortable using a CPAP. He said oral devices are easier to transport and can be more cost effective.

“An oral appliance isn’t any better than a CPAP, but it is better than a CPAP in the closet,” he said.

There will also be listening sessions May 17 in Chicago and May 25 in Los Angeles.

Written comments regarding possible sleep apnea requirements can be submitted at the website or by mailing Docket Services, U.S. Department of Transportation, West Building Ground Floor, Room W12-140, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20590-0001. You are asked to identify whether you are in the transportation industry or medical profession, but you can choose to remain anonymous.

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Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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