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New sleep apnea guidelines could reduce truck accident rate

One of the top causes of large truck accidents is drowsy driving. Because truck drivers are typically under heavy pressure to deliver the goods they're hauling as quickly as possible and are usually not paid to rest when they feel the need, sleep deprivation is common.

Adding to the problem is the high rate of sleep apnea among truck drivers. People with this condition experience brief interruptions in breathing, and in some cases very shallow breathing, while they sleep. These interruptions last 10 to 20 seconds before the person is jolted out of a natural sleep rhythm; they can occur up to hundreds of times in a single night. As a result, sleep apnea sufferers spend more time in light sleep and less time in the deep sleep required to feel refreshed, mentally sharp and productive during the day.

Feeling sleepy all day isn't just a minor annoyance. In addition to causing health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, sleep deprivation can be extremely dangerous, leading to slow reflexes and poor concentration -- two major hazards for truck drivers. In fact, sleep apnea raises a driver's risk of crashing by 242 percent, according to a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Effective treatment for sleep apnea is available, but sufferers first have to realize they have the condition and actively seek that treatment. To ensure this, the federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has proposed new standards for sleep apnea evaluation. Acting on the recommendations of two advisory panels, one medical and another made up of industry professionals, the agency plans to tell medical examiners to screen truck drivers for the condition if they're at risk of it.

Extensive research tells us that people with a body mass index of 35 or higher at greater risk of having sleep apnea. Other high-risk factors include middle age and male gender, but BMI, which is a body fat measurement based on height and weight, is a primary indicator.

At this point, the FMCSA's recommendations for systematic sleep apnea screening are just that. But in the future, the agency and the panels guiding it would like to see a comprehensive rule for trucking companies. By screening truck drivers with the highest risk of having a condition that causes sleep deprivation, the rate of truck accidents, which often result in serious injuries or death, could be significantly reduced.

Source: Truckinginfo.com, "FMCSA Proposes Guidance for Sleep Apnea," Oliver B. Patton, April 20, 2012

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