Healthy Living

Untreated Sleep Apnea Makes Truck Drivers 5 Times As Likely To Crash

"It's really key for the public to weigh in on this," says one researcher.
03/23/2016 06:21pm ET
Paul Burns via Getty Images
New findings from the Harvard School of Public Health reveal that sleep apnea among truck drivers is a major public health issue.

You probably know that things like alcohol, vision problems and texting are all risk factors for traffic accidents. But what about the seemingly innocuous condition of sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is a chronic disorder in which a person experiences pauses in breathing during the night, leading to poor sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness. It affects at least 25 million adults in the U.S., including more than 20 percent of commercial truck drivers, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The daytime sleepiness caused by OSA can make for dangerously fatigued drivers. Drowsy driving (from numerous causes, including OSA) is a factor in 328,000 crashes each year.

Drowsy truck driving, in particular, has been linked to a number of deadly accidents, like the infamous crash that injured Tracy Morgan in 2014 when a truck driver who had been up for 28 hours collided with Morgan's limousine.

New findings from the Harvard School of Public Health reveal that sleep apnea among truck drivers is a major public health issue. In a study released this week, which looked at over 3,600 truck drivers, researchers found that drivers with untreated sleep apnea were five times as likely to get into preventable crashes as drivers without the condition.

"We were directly responding to the lack of data about sleep apnea directly related to commercial drivers," Stefanos Kales, an author of the study, told The Huffington Post. "Regulating sleep apnea in commercial drivers has been surprisingly controversial, but we hope this data makes the risks clear."

The study compared drivers with obstructive sleep apnea to drivers without the condition, from 2006 to 2010. Among the drivers with OSA, some were treating it with a pressurized-air device called APAP, and some left it untreated. The APAP devices contained chips that allowed the researchers to see how frequently they were being used, Kales said, so the data was collected automatically, rather than from self-reports.

While those who left the OSA untreated had the worst crash rate, Kales said that those who regularly treated their condition with APAP devices performed as well as the OSA-free control group. This suggests that more and consistent treatment should be a priority for truck drivers, Kales said.

But while sleep groups and the public can agree that drowsy truck driving is a serious issue, it's stopped short of being addressed in legislation.

That's changing. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation took the first official step to address sleep apnea in commercial drivers: it announced plans to legislate the issue soon, and invited the public to submit research and suggestions.

The regulation of truck drivers' hours has been controversial in recent years. As of 2014, Congress was still pushing for longer hours for truck drivers.

The public can currently submit input on the best way to address sleep apnea in people who drive commercial trucks and conduct trains. Kales said it is in Americans' public interest to speak out during the 90-day comment period issued by the Department of Transportation. "It's really key for the public to weigh in on this. Drowsy driving kills thousands of people every year. This is not just an issue for the trucking industry," he said.

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