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?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that 100,000 fatigue-related crashes occur each year, 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.
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.
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 (OSA), 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 regulations, intended to help drivers get more rest during the work week. Unfortunately, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the new rules have done nothing to improve safety as they provide no means to effectively monitor hours spent driving.
Commercial Drivers More Likely to Fall Asleep
According to the NHTSA, because commercial drivers generally are required to drive long distances for long periods of time, often at night, they are more susceptible to falling asleep behind the wheel than non-commercial drivers. Disturbingly, research from the National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed that fatigue was the most frequently cited cause of heavy truck accidents, accounting for 30-40 percent of them, and was also the cause of 31 percent 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. While commercial truck drivers are required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to undergo regular medical exams to spot dangerous medical conditions like these, many sleep disorders still go undiagnosed, or worse, ignored.
OSA, 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 BMI;
- Heavy snoring;
- Large neck circumference;
- High blood pressure;
- Middle to older age;
- Alcohol or sedative use;
- Difficulty breathing through the nose.
Sleep Deprivation and the Human Body
When the human body is deprived of sleep, cognitive performance begins to suffer almost immediately. Sleep deprivation problems can 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 or workplace accident.
On Sept. 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 choking on a cup of coffee that he was drinking while driving the bus.
Attorneys Ryan Zehl and Kevin Haynes filed a lawsuit against Greyhound and its parent company, FirstGroup, on behalf of five of the injured bus passengers. After taking depositions of Greyhound’s CEO and head of safety, they learned that just one month prior to the crash, the same driver was suspected of having OSA.
The Department of Transportation physician who suspected that the driver had OSA notified Greyhound, recommended that they send the driver in for a polysomnography (an overnight sleep study), and issued a limited three-month medical certificate (rather than the ordinary one- or two-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.
After taking the deposition of the Greyhound bus driver, Zehl and 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 OSA 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, Zehl and Hayes negotiated a $6 million settlement on behalf of the injured bus riders.
About the author: Chris Zimmer is the website manager and regular contributor for zehllaw.com. A personal injury law firm that represents clients across Texas and the United States, Zehl & Associates has represented over 5,000 workers, individuals and families after being seriously injured in offshore accidents, truck and bus accidents, and in connection with some of the most catastrophic workplace explosions in recent history.