A Truck Driver’s Health Issues Impact Alertness

A recent CBS News investigation found hundreds of instances in which crashes were linked to drivers’ health issues, particularly sleep disorders and vision problems.

There’s no thrill for the millions of motorists who may be navigating the interstates alongside truck drivers who are having trouble staying alert. Investigators suspect that commercial drivers involved in a number of high-profile crashes on the nation’s highways had medical histories that should have kept them off the road – that is, if they had been up-front about their health woes with their employers and federal transportation officials.

A University of Minnesota study released in March found that truck drivers whose sleep is interrupted by a breathing condition known as sleep apnea are much more likely to be involved in a wreck if they aren’t properly treated for the condition. The study looked at more than 1,600 U.S. truck drivers with sleep apnea and calculated that their risk of crashing is five times higher than that of other drivers. With good reason, the findings prompted a call from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine for “transportation companies to implement comprehensive sleep apnea screening and treatment programs to ensure that truck drivers stay awake at the wheel.”

The Federal Motor Safety Carrier Administration (FMCSA) is also helping by requiring truck company drivers to use a new medical health disclosure from detailing more detailed medical histories. One of the changes is that the form makes clear drivers must list their complete medical histories, rather than just illnesses or injuries the past five years. In addition, several questions probe more deeply for signed of obstructive sleep apnea, a focus of FMCSA due to its potential relationship with fatigue and truck accidents.

Many questions are also asked in a more open-ended manner, intended to encourage discussion with the examiner. For example, the form asks if a driver has eye problems or ear and/or hearing problems. The new form also adds such questions as, “Have you ever spent a night in the hospital? Have you ever had a sleep test? Do you currently drink alcohol?” Law enforcement and transportation officials can help focus policymakers on the issue of high-risk drivers by more clearly documenting instances in which health conditions play a role in crashes. The CBS report found that few states compile such information.

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