Potential Sleep Apnea Regulation

When the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s obstructive sleep apnea committee met in January to discuss seven questions, important to trucking companies, about the condition and treatment of sleep apnea, compliance monitoring for truckers diagnosed with the condition and the relationship between sleep apnea and highway safety.

That meeting resulted in a new partnership. A joint committee of the FMCSA Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee and Medical Review Board adopted a set of 11 recommendations for truck driving companies regarding sleep apnea. The recommendations include requiring sleep apnea tests for all drivers with a body mass index (BMI) of higher than 35.

The MCSAC and MRB had never worked together before on regulatory matters, but MCSAC chairman Dave Parker, senior vice president of Great West Casualty, predicted future partnerships. “This will not be the last time this group gets together to work on something directly” regarding the truck driving industry, Parker said.

The majority of members supported the new recommendations. Significantly, Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association executive vice president Todd Spencer opposed the recommendations. Stating he realizes the need for some regulation of driver health conditions, Spencer objected to the narrowness of the regulations. Spenser objected to focusing solely on apnea, adding that it won’t “survive the cost-benefit analysis.” Spencer said that while the trucking industry "may pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve done here," no one
"has a clue" how the proposed regulations will work in the real world. How the regulations will affect truck driving jobs remains to be seen.

The major question regarding these new regulations is whether truckers with obstructive sleep apnea pose an increased risk of a vehicle accident. The regulations could affect drivers looking for truck driving jobs, as well as trucking companies hiring those drivers.

The problem is that the data is inconclusive. The subcommittee used data extracted from studies on noncommercial drivers along with one study on commercial drivers. The link between crash risk for truckers and sleep apnea was extrapolated from that date. Rob Abbott of the American Trucking Association points out that “The causal relationship has not been studied.” There is no way to know the actual risk.

Todd Spencer adds, “I’m stunned with the absence of knowledge of the particular group that we’re trying to regulate. There’s a world of difference between people who drive a truck professionally than those who don’t.”

The recommendations will not result in immediate regulation. At this point they are merely recommendations. When guidance is proposed based on the recommendations, a public comment period will follow, according to Larry Minor, FMCSA associate administrator for policy. Creating the regulation would be a years-long process.

Drivers can expect a 30-day public comment period this spring on the interim recommended guidance produced by the joint committee.

While there is widespread support for the recommendations, questions do remain for the trucking industry. The impact on truck driving jobs will have to be considered. Data will have to be analyzed and the real causal risk determined. In addition, the matters of compliance monitoring and enforcement should be carefully reviewed.

When the interim guidance is released for public comment in the spring, truckers will have an opportunity to make their concerns heard.

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