Sleep Apnea and Commercial Drivers: A Deadly Combination

Sleep Apnea and Commercial Drivers: A Deadly Combination
By: Zehl and Associates for Veltri Trucking

Blinding kaleidescope of red and white motorway traffic lights.

There’s no question that driver fatigue poses a serious threat to safety on our nation’s roadways. But just how bad is the threat? Well, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the number of fatigue-related crashes reported to the police each year stands at a staggering 100,000, many of which involve professional drivers in heavy commercial vehicles. That means an average of 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and $12.5 billion in monetary damages each year as a result of fatigue-related accidents.

That’s bad. And the worst part is, they are all 100% avoidable.

So what is being done to prevent fatigued commercial drivers—specially licensed, professional operators of 18 wheelers, buses and other large commercial vehicles—from getting behind the wheel while they’re tired or fatigued? Well, as it turns out, not enough.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and Sleep Apnea

 According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, specifically § 392.3 on ill or fatigued operators: No driver shall operate a commercial motor vehicle, and a motor carrier shall not require or permit a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle, while the driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, or so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, illness, or any other cause, as to make it unsafe for him/her to begin or continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle.

That means both drivers and their companies have a legal responsibility to make sure that anyone suspected of Obstructive Sleep Apnea, or other similar condition, stays off of the road.

Recent developments in the law have witnessed the implementation of a number of “improvements,” including Hours of Service (HOS) regulations, intended to help drivers get more rest during the work week. Unfortunately, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the new rules have done nothing to improve safety as they provide no means to effectively monitor hours spent driving.

Why are Commercial Drivers More Likely to Fall Asleep at the Wheel?

According to the NHTSA, because commercial drivers are generally required to drive long distances for long periods of time, often at night, they are generally more susceptible to falling asleep behind the wheel than non-commercial drivers. Disturbingly, research from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has confirmed that fatigue was the most frequently cited cause of heavy truck accidents, accounting for 30-40% of them, and was also the cause of 31% of the 182 fatal-to-the-truck-driver accidents studied.

Due to sedentary lifestyles and a tendency toward a high Body Mass Index (BMI), commercial drivers are at greater risk than non-commercial drivers of developing dangerous sleep disorders, including Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)—a condition that causes breathing to stop and start repeatedly throughout the night due to upper airway constriction.

These constant interruptions in breathing make deep sleep almost impossible and inevitably lead to chronic fatigue. While commercial truck drivers are required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to undergo regular medical exams to spot dangerous medical conditions like these, many sleep disorders still go undiagnosed, or worse—ignored.

Sleep Deprivation and the Human Body

When the human body is deprived of sleep, cognitive performance begins to suffer almost immediately. Sleep deprivation problems will include:

  • A Decrease in Alertness and an Inability to Perform;
  • Cognitive as well as Memory Difficulties; and
  • An Increased Risk of Involvement in a Motor Vehicle and/or Workplace Accident.

$6 Million Settlement with Greyhound Bus Company After Obtaining Court Order that Required Bus Driver to Undergo Obstructive Sleep Apnea Testing

On September 14, 2013, a Greyhound bus driver fell asleep at the wheel while traveling northbound on Interstate 70 just north of Cincinnati. The bus, loaded with 51 passengers, drove off the highway and rolled over into a cornfield, severely injuring several of the bus passengers onboard. Greyhound denied responsibility for the crash, claiming that the driver had lost consciousness from chocking on a cup of coffee that he was drinking while driving the bus.

Our bus accident lawyers, Ryan Zehl and Kevin Haynes, filed a lawsuit against Greyhound and its parent company, FirstGroup, on behalf of 5 of the injured bus passengers.

After taking depositions of Greyhound’s CEO and head of safety, we learned that, just one month prior to the crash, this same driver was suspected of having Obstructive Sleep Apnea, a serious sleep disorder that, when untreated, increases the risk of a fatigue related crash by over 7 times.

The Department of Transportation physician who suspected that the driver had Obstructive Sleep Apnea notified Greyhound, recommended that they send the driver in for a polysomnography (an overnight sleep study), and issued a limited 3 month medical certificate (rather than the ordinary 1 or 2 year certification).

Despite these serious red flags, Greyhound failed to have the sleep study done and, instead, allowed the bus driver to continue driving passengers. The result: the driver fell asleep at the wheel while on I-70, causing the bus to leave the roadway and flip over. 51 passengers were onboard, many of which were seriously injured.

After taking the deposition of the Greyhound bus driver, Ryan Zehl and Kevin Haynes were able to convince the trial court and court of appeals to require the driver to undergo an overnight sleep study. The court ordered sleep test confirmed that the bus driver had moderate to severe Obstructive Sleep Apnea and, as a result, should not have been driving the bus.

This appears to be the first time in history that a law firm has been able to convince both a trial court and court of appeals to issue an order requiring a Greyhound Bus driver to undergo an overnight sleep study. Several weeks before trial, our Greyhound Accident Lawyers were able to negotiate a $6 Million settlement on behalf of our clients.

This is the largest reported settlement in Greyhound’s history.

Only 2 years earlier, Ryan Zehl and Kevin Haynes recovered a $18.7 Million verdict against Greyhound, which was the largest in the company’s history and also the largest accident verdict in the State of Texas that year.

Risk Factors Associated with Sleep Apnea

Obstructive Sleep Apnea, the most common form of sleep apnea, is a condition in which the upper respiratory system intermittently constricts to block the flow of oxygen into the lungs. This constriction forces the body to work hard in order to breathe and, consequently, causes the body to shift from deep, restful sleep to light sleep in order to bring air in. This lack of sleep tends to accumulate until individuals start to operate with a significant sleep deficit.

While individuals of all ages can develop sleep apnea, common sleep apnea risk factors include:

  • Obesity/High Body Mass Index (BMI);
  • Heavy Snoring;
  • Large Neck Circumference;
  • High Blood Pressure;
  • Diabetes;
  • Male;
  • Middle to Older Age;
  • Smoking;
  • Alcohol or Sedative Use;
  • Difficulty Breathing Through the Nose

This article was provided to Veltri by Zehl and Associates a law firm educating people about safe driving and accident prevention. Veltri is proud of our excellent accident prevention program and safe driving history. We are grateful for our professional drivers and their devotion to safety.

Contact the Zehl and Associates, Our Truck and Bus Accident Lawyers for a Free Consultation: 1-888-982-0720.

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