Asleep at the Wheel & in the Capitol

Getting behind the wheel when you’re sleep deprived is never a good idea. Research shows that even moderate tiredness can impair a driver as much as being legally intoxicated.
Driving while fatigued can be especially dangerous for operators of big rigs and other oversized trucks. These vehicles can wreak an incredible amount of destruction when they collide with a smaller personal-use vehicle, potentially seriously injuring or killing innocent people.

It would make sense that regulations should be in place to ensure that commercial truck drivers are well-rested when they steer their massive vehicles. Highways filled with multi-ton trucks operated by sleepy, overworked drivers who put the public at risk sounds like the stuff of a Hollywood B-movie. But this is the scary reality our country faces today.

Trucking Accidents Continue to Pile Up

Recent trucking statistics show an 18% increase in fatal trucking accidents. As anecdotal evidence, headlines from the spring of 2015 reveal a string of crashes involving tired truckers working past their limits, with disastrous consequences.

  • On April 22, a truck struck a line of cars on Interstate 16 in Georgia that had been backed up by an earlier truck crash. The driver killed five nursing students who were heading to their final training shift of the year. According to lawsuits filed in connection to the accident, the driver suffered from sleep apnea and had a history of falling asleep while behind the wheel.
  • On May 19, a big rig drifted across lanes towards a construction zone on Interstate 16 in Georgiaand plowed into stopped cars. Five people’s lives were lost.
  • On June 25, a tractor-trailer driver, who worked 50 hours and allegedlyhigh on meth, slammed his truck into a line of traffic on I-75 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. 6 people died.
  • On July 23, a trucker smashed into backed-up traffic on I-65 near Lafayette, Indiana, taking 5 people’s lives.

These are fatal examples of cases where drowsiness was named as the probable cause. Industry insiders suspect that fatigue-related crashes are not nearly recognized to the degree that they actually occur. This is largely due to the fact that there are no exams or blood test for drowsiness, and drivers rarely admit to nodding off when logging in hours in their trucks.

Drowsy at The Wheel

Sleep apnea is a relatively common sleep disorder whereby sufferers experience disrupted sleep due to obstructed airways. They often feel exhausted and are prone to dozing off throughout the day. It goes without saying that it’s in the best interest of the public that truckers not have sleep apnea or other sleep disorders that compromise their level of alertness.

Experts with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the governmental body that regulates the trucking industry, have pushed for drivers to be checked for sleep apnea.

Risk for apnea increases sharply with weight gain, and according to a 2014 federal survey, approximately two-thirds of all truck drivers are obese. What’s more, a recent Harvard study found truckers with sleep apnea are five times more likely to crash than their peers. Considering these two findings together, it’s easy to reach the conclusion that screening drivers for sleep apnea is a reasonable measure to protect the public.

Not according to the trucking industry.

When the FMCSA put forth a proposal in April 2012 that would require overweight truckers to be screened for sleep apnea, the industry was outraged. Drivers went on the defensive, claiming there was no evidence to connect sleep apnea to the increased risk of accidents. Others in the industry said it was not economically feasible, while some with more conspiracy theory tendencies hypothesized that the screenings were set up to enrich sleep disorder physicians.

The FMCSA dropped the proposal soon thereafter.

Congressional Influence

Out of concern that the FMCSA might resurrect its apnea screening proposal, trucking industry insiders formulated and succeeded with a counter-attack. They lobbied Congress to enact a law to require the FMCSA to follow a formal rulemaking process that can take years to enact regulations for sleep apnea screenings. Effectively this move blocked the sleep apnea screening push.

This highlights the influence the trucking industry has over our legislators. Members of the Coalition for Efficient and Responsible Trucking (CERT), an alliance of the nation’s largest shippers, have spent an incredible sum of money swaying our government.

According to a 2015 Public Citizen study that used data from the Center for Responsive Politics, CERT members have donated more than $13 million to federal election campaigns since 2012, and another $80 million on lobbyists.

The American Trucking Associations, an industry advocate, contributed another $2.4 million on campaigns and $8 million on lobbying. Another industry group, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, has put down $3.5 million for lobbying and nearly $800,000 on elections.

In total, the industry is spending more than $20 million every year to have a sympathetic ear with Congress.

These trucking industry influencers have performed well at their jobs and keep aiming higher in enacting trucking-friendly legislation. In addition to securing a victory on blocking the apnea screening, trucking lobbyists also helped roll back sleep rules in 2014 and added a number of policy riders to the annual 2016 transportation funding bill.

Trucking lobbyists are also currently promoting other proposals in Congress that essentially relax or eliminate rules in place to help protect the public, including: longer, taller and heavier trucks; allowing teen drivers; and relaxing hours-of-service rules.

A recent survey showed that the public is by and large firmly against these trucking industry initiatives – ones that clearly put all of us at greater risk of being the next victim of a trucking accident disaster.

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