FMCSA review board reportedly to address sleep apnea

| 4/1/2008

Several media outlets, including USA Today, have published reports that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s medical review board will make a final recommendation next week regarding sleep apnea.

According to USA Today, the FMCSA’s medical review board will finish recommendations that truckers be tested for sleep conditions once they meet a specific level of obesity. The move is expected to come during the medical review board’s meeting on Monday, April 7.

Sleep apnea occurs most often when throat muscles relax, momentarily preventing oxygen from traveling to one’s lungs, according to the Mayo Clinic. The condition can be treated with use of a continuous positive airway pressure machine – commonly referred to as a CPAP – and can sometimes be minimized by weight loss, sleeping on one’s side, and avoiding alcohol before bedtime.

An FMCSA spokesman pointed out that the medical review board is autonomous, and doesn’t make regulatory decisions involving commercial vehicle drivers.

“Recommendations proffered by the MRB go to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the FMCSA Administrator who may choose to advance all, or elements, or take no action at all,” FMCSA spokesman Duane DeBruyne responded in an electronic message.

FMCSA has no timetable to consider sleep apnea and truck drivers, DeBruyne said.

Former trucker Tom Weakley said he hasn’t seen anyone publish research that links obesity with crashes or shown that obese drivers are a greater risk to safety than thin drivers.

Weakley, director of operations for the OOIDA Foundation, said the Association opposes mandatory sleep apnea testing “unless they can show a direct causal relationship between obesity, sleep apnea and highway safety,” Weakley told Land Line.

Studies have claimed that sleep disorders can cause weight gain, and weight gain can be caused by sleep disorders, Weakley said. Regulations become dangerous when authorities assume that a driver’s weight is equated with a medical condition which in turn is assumed to make them a less safe driver.

“The question becomes does obesity cause or contribute to sleep apnea or do sleep disorders cause obesity and is there any correlation with safety on the road?” Weakley said. “Certainly, we feel every driver should be healthy and understand that obesity is linked to a number of illnesses but let’s not jump to some unfounded conclusions that directly affect the livelihood of drivers.”

Drivers could argue that excessive regulations regarding healthy and safety cause high levels of stress, Weakley said, thereby driving up stress-related medical conditions that may affect safety.

Too often, Weakley said, medical conditions are linked to one-size-fits-all standards that all too often miss the mark.

Weakley pointed to overweight and obese standards set by the body mass index and its reliance on height and weight. According to BMI, adults who are 5 feet 9 inches tall and weigh more than 169 pounds are overweight.

“You have to ask yourself if there is any justification for using such unproven and highly subjective information to warrant a mandate,” Weakley said.

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer