There are few things more disturbing when traveling on Americas highways than passing by a horrible accident scene involving an 18 wheeler. The images of a minivan, crushed and twisted to the point of being barely recognizable is burned into our minds, never to be forgotten.
We don’t know the family’s name.
We’ll only know that on that day, lives were ruined. Ripped apart. Shattered by the death of loved ones.
How could an 18 wheeler tractor trailer, driven by a professional truck driver crash into the rear of vehicle stopped in a long line of heavy traffic?
Sadly, this horrible tragedy repeats itself over and over again on our nation’s highways every year, year after year?
It continues to happen because 18 wheelers (tractor trailers) are being operated by professional drivers impaired by chronic fatigue. It is the horrible reality of today’s trucking industry.
There can be only one of two explanations for a truck driver crashing into the rear of a vehicle in broad daylight stopped in a long line of heavy traffic:
- Either the truck driver did it intentionally because, unless he was impaired, he could not help but see it, and if he did it intentionally, he’s guilty of murder; or
- The truck driver was so impaired (by fatigue) he never recognized a long line of cars stopped ahead of him in broad daylight with no view obstruction and with plenty of time to stop.
The financial incentive for trucking companies and drivers to keep a tractor-trailer unit (profit unit) in operation all hours of the day and night is significant and not expected to diminish. The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration administers hours of service rules for drivers and trucking companies (49 C.F.R. Code Part 395), but with its practical limitations in enforcement ability, it is a moderate deterrent to chronic violations resulting in fatigued, dangerous drivers behind the wheel.
While we have seen countless examples of trucking companies violating the legal hours of service — pushing their drivers to make insanely long trips without proper rest resulting in fatal accidents caused by driver fatigue. That is not the only reason these accidents continue to occur.
There is what some may call a more menacing and deadly cause of highway crashes resulting from fatigued truck drivers. In 2007, a report presented to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration confirmed what many of us already knew. Professional truck drivers with a very common medical condition called obstructive sleep apnea are at a significantly increased risk for a motor vehicle crash when compared to comparable individuals who do not have the medical condition.
This means a truck driver could follow all the rules regarding hours of service, but still be suffering from severe fatigue and cause a deadly but preventable crash.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea is a serious medical condition which allows the throat muscles to intermittently relax and block your airway during sleep. The pauses occurring when your airway is blocked, called apnea (literally meaning “without breathing”) reduces blood oxygen saturation. When the body experiences low oxygen levels caused by not breathing (hypoxia or hypoxemia) brain damage occurs. Serious medical complications can result, including cardiovascular problems (increased blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure, and stroke). People with obstructive sleep apnea typically experience severe fatigue, drowsiness, and difficulty concentrating. They may fall asleep at work or while driving because restorative sleep is made impossible by the obstructive sleep apnea.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average life expectancy of a driver is less than 61 years, which is 16 years younger than the average American. By their own estimates, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration estimates that almost 3 out of 10 truck drivers suffers from mild to severe sleep apnea. These statistics reveal to us that many truck drivers are suffering from a well-known and common medical condition that causes severe fatigue, drowsiness, difficulty concentrating and puts them at a much higher risk for being involved in a deadly crash.
What does all this information mean?
Well, for the trucking industry, drivers and carriers MUST take a proactive approach to evaluating and diagnosing its professional drivers to determine if they have obstructive sleep apnea.
If a twelve thousand pound 18 wheeler operated by a truck driver with untreated obstructive sleep apnea is a deadly accident waiting to happen, treatment by a qualified medical doctor must be mandated to protect the public.
Where a driver and the motor carrier fail to guard against fatigue, they have shown a conscious disregard for the safety of the public using our highways. Failing to act on this evidence means our loved ones will continue to share the highway with fatigued truck drivers operating 18 wheelers.