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Untreated sleep apnea a major hazard among truck drivers

We've all heard the horror stories about fatal truck accidents caused by drowsy driving. Overworked and under-rested truck drivers put all other drivers at risk when they stay behind the wheel well past the point of exhaustion. Studies have shown that drowsy or fatigued driving can be as dangerous as driving drunk.

The reasons for truck driver fatigue are fairly intuitive. Many truckers are only paid for the time they spend driving and the amount of miles they log. Therefore, they have an economic incentive to stay moving all the time. Moreover, most long-haul truckers have work schedules that are always shifting. Therefore, the sleep they do get may not be as restful as it could be.

There is another contribution to truck driver fatigue that much of the public doesn't know about: obstructive sleep apnea. The condition is characterized by frequent interruptions in breathing during sleep. As you can imagine, the quality of sleep for someone with apnea is likely to be very low, resulting in chronic fatigue during waking hours.

By some estimates, sleep apnea affects up to 28 percent of commercial drivers - far higher than diagnosed rates in the general population. And according to the results of a recent study, truck drivers with untreated sleep apnea are five times more likely to be involved in a serious crash.

The study's authors were able to find data on about 1,600 truck drivers diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. Compared to a control group of truck drivers, those who adhered to their apnea treatments had no higher risk of crashes. But those who did not follow treatment recommendations had crash rates five times higher than the control group.

Obstructive sleep apnea can be exacerbated by obesity, and obesity is often the result of a sedentary lifestyle (like full-time truck driving). Even if truckers with apnea cannot find time to exercise, however, other treatments (like special breathing masks) can help them obtain more restful sleep at night.

Truck drivers who cause fatigue-related crashes have harmed others through negligence - especially if they were violating hours-of-service regulations or if they chose not to treat their obstructive sleep apnea. As such, these drivers (and the companies they work for) may be held legally liable in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit.

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