Law passes regarding sleep apnea tests for truckers

by The City Wire staff ( 202 views 

While Congress doesn’t seem to agree on much these days, helping trucking firms keep highways safer did strike a harmonious chord during the recent government shutdown.

H.R. 3095 — involving rules the trucking industry uses to screen and test for sleep apnea disorder among commercial truck drivers — was signed by President Obama on Oct. 15. The legislation first introduced in mid-September sailed through the House and Senate in one month’s time.

“In the coming months we plan to begin collecting and analyzing research on how best to address obstructive sleep apnea in a rule, in accordance with the new law,” Marissa Padilla, spokeswoman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), said Thursday (Oct. 17).

Each state now has its own set of guidelines as to how it screens and tests drivers suspected of having sleep apnea. The new law ensures testing, screening or treatment for drivers be adopted pursuant to a rulemaking proceeding.

The American Trucking Associations, unions and trucking firms largely support the new law because it does allow for a thorough study to take place before a rule is mandated.
“The rulemaking process allows for medical experts, the regulated community, including professional drivers, to provide valuable data and input for the agency to consider in developing its regulations. A formal rulemaking will also require an analysis of the benefits and costs of regulating sleep apnea, an analysis not required for the issuance of guidance,” said Bill Graves, CEO of the ATA.

Graves said there is no quick means to addressing the sleep apnea problem.

“There are more than 3 million professional truck drivers and the cost of screening, diagnosis and treatment for sleep apnea could easily exceed $1 billion annually. Taking a step as potentially costly as that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly and outside of the normal processes,” he said.
The industry is aware of the seriousness of sleep apnea on highway safety. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and sponsored by the FMCSA and the American Trucking Association found that almost one-third — 28% — of commercial truck drivers have mild to severe sleep apnea.

Trucking firms in Arkansas follow the guidelines set by the Office of Driver Services, Driver Control, a division of the state’s Department of Finance Authority.

The agency holds “ability to drive” hearings when a report is filed regarding suspected sleep apnea. Those reports come from company’s, driver family members or the drivers themselves who suspect they have the disorder, said Tonie Shields, administrator for driver control.

In most cases, Shields said, the driver is given a short period to get the screening and test done and report back to the agency.

“If they have been treated or there is no finding, the matter is resolved. But if they do not return doctor recommendation to continue driving, they will face possible suspension,” she said.

Shields said if and when the FMCSA does put a new sleep apnea rule in place, it will be adopted by the State of Arkansas at the following legislative session.

She agreed that it’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure drivers with sleep apnea get treated for disorder.

Approximately 170,000 individuals are injured in trucking accidents each year. Roughly 5,000 semi-trucks per year are involved in fatal traffic accidents in the United States.

Data regarding how many of those involve sleep apnea was not available, but driver fatigue has accounted for up to 40% accidents in a year’s time, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The economies in Northwest Arkansas and the rest of the state are greatly impacted by the trucking industry that provides thousands of jobs — driving, back-office and executive level — as there are dozens of logistics firms located in-state.

“Commercial truck drivers are vital to our company and our global economy, but their highway miles can be dangerous without proper safety implementation,” Dan Sanker CEO of CaseStack, a third party logistics firm based in Fayetteville.

“We all need drivers to stay healthy, fit and well rested. Driver fatigue can increase the probability of an accident and nobody wants that.  The industry invests a lot into safety, but a truck driver’s most important safety equipment is him or herself,” Sanker added.

The City Wire sought comments from J.B. Hunt, P.A.M. Transportation, ABF Freight, USA Truck and Willis Shaw Express. None of these carriers responded.