March 30, 2018
Column | outbound

Asleep at the wheel

Some trucking regulations can be changed or gutted. A preliminary study into driver sleep apnea should not have been one of them.

By Mitch Mac Donald

Our executive editor-news, Mark Solomon, has obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). He wakes up at least once during the night, his system jolted by a lack of oxygen. That's because his soft palate and tongue have collapsed onto his throat and partially or fully closed off his airway. He is tired in the morning and drowsy through much of the day. Lunchtime is typically naptime.

Take his unfortunate circumstance and export it to the world of commercial truck drivers operating big machines at high velocities around thousands of people. They drive for 11 straight hours (with a 30-minute break) over bad roads, in terrible weather and gridlocked traffic, and alongside amateur drivers known as "motorists." Should these professionals cope with a disorder that could compromise their alertness and judgment, jeopardize highway safety, and if left untreated, lead to a heart attack or stroke? The answer, which should be obvious to anyone, is no.

All the more puzzling, then, was the Trump administration's decision last August to gut a rulemaking begun in March 2016 to examine whether OSA screening should be mandatory for truck drivers and rail operators. The decision was viewed unfavorably by various groups, including the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which voiced disappointment that the White House shut down a "needed" rulemaking.

Drivers must get a medical exam to hold a commercial driver's license, and it is up to a medical examiner to determine if a driver's condition interferes with performance. A driver diagnosed with moderate or severe OSA is sidelined until an examiner determines the disorder is under control. However, stakeholders—including examiners—were hoping the Department of Transportation (DOT) would provide clarity on the issue as there are gray areas on what is and is not allowed when addressing OSA.

Indeed, in the original notice, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) merely wanted to "consider regulatory action to ensure consistency in addressing the risk of OSA among transportation workers with safety-sensitive duties."

In withdrawing the proposal, the sub-agencies said "current safety programs" and an FRA rulemaking addressing "fatigue risk management" were the appropriate avenues to address OSA's impact. In 2012, FMCSA's Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee and Medical Review Board released guidelines for OSA screening as part of DOT medical examinations. They were updated in 2016. Whether that's a clear enough roadmap is anybody's guess.

The private sector doesn't provide much robust engagement in this area, either; two spring 2016 surveys of more than 800 drivers conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), a nonprofit arm of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), found that only 24 percent of employee drivers and 12 percent of independent drivers leased to a motor carrier said their carriers had a defined OSA policy. In addition, the vast majority of all respondents said their carriers' insurance did not cover any of the costs of OSA testing, a major deterrent in drivers' getting checked.

Perhaps the Trump administration is right in that current policies are adequate to address the problem. But there is enough concern over OSA to justify a further look into this widespread and often unchecked problem. A joint ATRI and University of Pennsylvania study estimated that 28 percent of truck drivers have some form of OSA. Overweight people who eat poorly and don't get enough exercise are at elevated risk. Unfortunately, too many truck drivers fit that profile.

We are no fans of excessive regulation. This page repeatedly took the Obama administration to task over intrusive burdens placed on the trucking industry. Yet as we listened to Solomon's story and extrapolated that to the thousands of people pulling 18-wheelers down our roads, we think this is one rule that should have been saved from the cutting-room floor.

About the Author

Mitch Mac Donald
Group Editorial Director
Mitch Mac Donald has more than 30 years of experience in both the newspaper and magazine businesses. He has covered the logistics and supply chain fields since 1988. Twice named one of the Top 10 Business Journalists in the U.S., he has served in a multitude of editorial and publishing roles. The leading force behind the launch of Supply Chain Management Review, he was that brand's founding publisher and editorial director from 1997 to 2000. Additionally, he has served as news editor, chief editor, publisher and editorial director of Logistics Management, as well as publisher of Modern Materials Handling. Mitch is also the president and CEO of Agile Business Media, LLC, the parent company of DC VELOCITY and CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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