Papantonio: Death On The Highway Increases From Trucking Disasters – America’s Lawyer

Truck driver Kenneth Armstrong is a big guy with a bigger problem.

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At age 55, he stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 308 pounds, which doctors say helps to explain why he’s been diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea, a dangerous disorder that puts him at high risk for health problems — and falling asleep at the wheel.

“It was mild, but has worsened as I have gotten older,” says Armstrong, a Michigan man who weighed 190 two decades ago, but gradually has put on pounds.

Fortunately for Armstrong — and the people on the road around him — his employer Swift Transportation Corp. of Phoenix is one of a small but growing number of trucking firms that voluntarily screen drivers at risk for sleep apnea and then pay to treat and monitor them for the potentially life-threatening condition.

Armstrong, for instance, wears a mask hooked to a machine that inflates his airways and restores his oxygen levels every night as he sleeps in his rig.

“I feel that I’m a much better and safer driver because of this CPAP,” he said, referring to the continuous positive airway pressure machine.

But that’s the exception, not the rule, according to sleep scientists at Harvard University, who have renewed a call for federal rules requiring mandatory testing of obese drivers. They say research shows there’s a strong link between fat drivers and sleep apnea and that screening could help prevent truck crashes that kill more than 5,200 people and injure more than 100,000 each year in the U.S.


“It’s a major public health issue and it’s becoming more common with the obesity epidemic,” said Dr. Stefanos N. Kales, medical director of employee and industrial medicine at the Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Mass.

Kales, who is also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, is the senior author of a study published this spring in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. It’s the latest to find that obesity is a strong predictor for sleep apnea, and that many drivers are likely to underreport symptoms or to fail to follow through on sleep study referrals and treatment.

“Screenings of truck drivers will be ineffective unless they are federally mandated or required by employers,” said Kales, who studied more than 450 commercial drivers working for more than 50 firms.

New federal rules for obese truckers?

Regulators with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have been considering for more than a year new rules that would require screening for drivers whose body mass index — a metric based on weight and height — exceeds 30, the baseline for obesity.

A BMI of 30 means 221 pounds for a 6-foot man. Kenneth Armstrong’s BMI equals 43. Researchers estimate that more than 40 percent of commercial drivers have a BMI of 30 or higher. BMI calculator

But the FMCSA has yet to act on the January 2008 recommendation by a medical review board, which frustrates groups representing victims of trucking accidents, who say that fatigue in general and sleep apnea in particular are under-recognized threats on the road.

“A driver is impaired by fatigue long before he falls asleep,” said Jeff Burns, a lawyer representing the Truck Safety Coalition, a safety advocacy group.

“Every time I’m in the vicinity of a large truck on the highway, I believe my life is in danger. I give trucks a very wide berth,” added Burns, who is a member of the Injury Board, a legal advocacy group.

Trucking industry officials reject such comments as scare tactics, noting that the number of truck and bus accidents has held steady at about 161,000 annually for several years, despite more miles traveled, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

They argue that obesity is only one of many indicators of sleep apnea and that safety standards should be based on driver performance, not body size.

“There is no direct relationship between a person’s body weight and his ability to drive an 18-wheel truck,” said Tom Weakley, director of operations for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents about 160,000 drivers. “Show me where that’s a better predictor than a person’s driving record.”

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes a person’s airways to collapse during sleep, cutting off breathing dozens — or even hundreds — of times a night. Because sufferers wake over and over, they’re never fully rested and their bodies are chronically deprived of oxygen. That can cause health problems ranging from heart disease to diabetes and symptoms that include daytime sleepiness and a tendency to nod off during normal activities.


“It can be a microsleep for few seconds,” said Kales. “That can be enough to throw a truck off the road.”

In such cases, the results can be devastating.

  • In May 2005, a Kansas mother and her 10-month-old child were killed when a truck collided with their sports utility vehicle, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. The driver had been diagnosed with severe sleep apnea, but he went to another doctor who issued a medical certificate because the driver didn't disclose his condition.
  • In July 2000, a Tennessee Highway Patrol officer died when a truck struck his police car as he guarded a highway work zone, the GAO said. The patrol car exploded on impact. The driver of the truck had previously been diagnosed with sleep apnea and had had a similar crash three years earlier, when he struck a patrol car in Utah.  

Nearly one in three drivers has sleep apnea

Sleep apnea increases the risk of an accident by two to seven times, and up to 20 percent of truck crashes are estimated to be caused by drivers who fall asleep, Kales said.

Prevalence studies suggest that up to 28 percent of commercial drivers have mild to severe sleep apnea. That works out to as many as 3.9 million of the roughly 14 million commercial drivers licensed in the United States, Kales indicated.

It’s a much higher than rate than for the general population, where an estimated 4 percent of men and 2 percent of women between the ages of 30 and 60 in the U.S. have sleep apnea, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association. Overall, about 18 million Americans have the problem, although only about 10 percent of sufferers actually are diagnosed.

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