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Will Truck Drivers Face a New, Mandatory Sleep Apnea Testing Requirement?

Sleep apnea is a condition that causes the affected individual to suffer through poor quality sleep due to hundreds or thousands of “micro-awakenings” that occur over the course of an evening. These micro-awakenings prevent the individual from ever falling into a deep, restful, and rejuvenating sleep. People with sleep apnea often report that they feel fatigued or exhausted regardless of how much or for how long they sleep.  

Unfortunately, sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed despite an overwhelming sense of fatigue in the individual. While warning signs for sleep apnea are useful, a proper diagnosis typically requires the individual to undergo a sleep study. In the meantime, they may experience bouts of overwhelming fatigue where they cannot maintain wakefulness no matter how hard they may try. Alternatively, a severely fatigued individual may drift to sleep without being aware they lost consciousness.

Commercial motor vehicle drivers who can unexpectedly lose consciousness at any time are clearly a danger to all on the road. In light of the fact that sleep apnea is typically treatable leading to a better quality of life and cessation of bouts of unexpected loss of consciousness, accidents caused by sleep apnea are nearly always preventable accidents.  To find out more about your truck accident case, contact an experienced truck accident lawyer.

But Doesn’t the Federal Government Already Test for Sleep Apnea in Truck Drivers?

In at least three instances – in 2000, 2008, and 2012 – the Medical Review Board study and issued recommendations concerning how sleep apnea in commercial vehicle drivers should be handled. One effort to address the larger problem of ensuring medical fitness in drivers was the passage of a 2014 law requiring all DOT physicals to be performed by a doctor or other qualified medical professional who has been certified by the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners.

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However, while this law brought more oversight to the selection of physicians, it did little to address underlying problems with a system that relies on voluntary compliance by drivers. For instance, due to concerns about his medical fitness to operate a CMV, a commercial truck driver may minimize what he tells the examining physician about his or her sleep apnea symptoms. Even if the driver is sent for further tests or a sleep study, he or she may fail to comply. Furthermore, if a truck driver is diagnosed with sleep apnea and is provided a CPAP or similar device, there is no mechanism to ensure that the driver is compliant with the prescribed treatment.

Congress Poised to Block Trucker Fatigue Safety Rules

DOT, FMCSA (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration), and FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) were engaged in a rulemaking process to implement mandatory sleep apnea testing. The agencies were accepting public comment on the proposed sleep apnea rules until July 8, 2016. This rulemaking process is still ongoing and hopefully, effective safety regulations to address sleep apnea will flow from these proceedings. Unfortunately, while these agencies are concerned with safety on highways and roadways, Congress seems to have other priorities.

Following recent debates over continuing spending bills required to keep the government funded through April 2017, it appears that a number of provisions that place industry profit before safety will be included. One of the biggest concerns is the fact that the bill would continue to block certain aspects of the hours-of-service and vehicle operator rest rules.

Hours-of-service rules are intended to prevent fatigued drivers from getting behind the wheel. Under current law, drivers are only permitted to drive 11 hours a day and up to 60 hours over the course of a seven-day window. A 34-hour rest rule allows the trucker to reset this clock after he or she rests for 34 hours. The regulation scuttled by this spending bill would have limited the use of the 34-hour rest reset and would have required at least two rest periods covering the 1 am to 5 am window per a rest period. While this rule is not a perfect fit to stop sleep apnea accidents, it did address one reason why sleep apnea effects can be exacerbated.

Congressional Action May Result in More Truck Accidents Due to Fatigue

Despite NTSB ‘s announcements that fatigued driving is one of its top concerns the approach and actions taken by Congress may have a chilling effect on future safety regulations and measures. These actions by Congress unnecessarily put the health and safety of all motorists at risk. While the trucking industry has successfully stymied rules intended to reduce fatigue, the hope is that recent high-profile accidents attributed to sleep apnea will encourage members of Congress to put safety before industry profitability. If you were injured on a highway by a driver with sleep apnea on I-70 and seek an attorney, contact an I-70 truck accident lawyer.

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