OOIDA questions call for apnea action

| 10/21/2009

A national safety organization is calling for federal trucking regulators to question truck drivers about sleep apnea.

The National Transportation Safety Board asked FMCSA to identify commercial drivers who may be at high risk for having apnea.

In a recent letter to FMCSA, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman cited separate crash instances involving a motor coach, two airline pilots, a trolley train, train engineer and cruise ship.

The letter mentioned one truck wreck with an apnea link, including a driver that hit a Tennessee Highway Patrol vehicle, killing a state trooper. The trucker had reportedly had surgery for apnea and used a C-PAP breathing device to treat the condition before the crash.

OOIDA has opposed blanket, one-size-fits-all approaches to pre-diagnosing apnea patients.

The Association strongly criticized a 2008 recommendation by the FMCSA Medical Review Board that said truckers with a body mass index of 30 or greater should undergo expensive overnight sleep lab tests.

Tom Weakley, director of operations for the OOIDA Foundation, said some safety advocates and even medical experts have blamed obstructive sleep apnea for safety issues, though apnea has rarely been more than anecdotally linked to some crashes.

“Our position always has been and always will be that we are concerned about the health of our drivers,” Weakley said. “Certainly, if a driver has any kind of illness or problems that would interfere with their driving, then they need to be checked out and get treated. However, in this particular instance, there still has been no direct causal relationship shown between sleep apnea and the accident.”

The one wreck NTSB tied to apnea listed apnea as only a probable cause, Weakley said.

“There were likely a lot of things that were probable causes,” Weakley said.

Truckers should be able to tell their doctors every possible health issue or symptom, Weakley said, without such information scarring their career or giving motor carriers leverage to hold over drivers.

While some drivers may have apnea issues that can be treated, he said, requiring millions of CDL holders to spend thousands of dollars out of pocket on apnea tests is irresponsible.

“To mandate such a thing for everybody else without any causal relationship shown is just a little bit ludicrous,” he said.

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer