As many motor carriers are still scrambling to comply with the ELD mandate that became law on December 18th, there’s little doubt in experts’ minds that once there’s a majority of compliance across the industry, the safety record of trucks on the road should improve. At the center of the argument are a driver’s Hours of Service (HOS), which legally are restricted to 11 hours of driving in a 14-hour workday (3 hours are allotted for loading, unloading and driver breaks). Before the ELD mandate, it was very much an honor system that relied on antiquated hand-written records—a process that technology can now reflect more accurately.
Yet 2017 won’t close with one in the win column for all aspects of trucking safety. Another issue that has seen much interest is drivers with sleep apnea, due in part to a number of high profile accidents, new research and proposed changes to legislation. For instance, the Obama administration had urged the FMCSA to construct a mandate that required driver screening for sleep apnea, yet it never became law as the Trump administration canceled any such testing as a federal requirement.
One might ask if a federal sleep apnea testing law is needed. After all, how prevalent is the problem?
Well, a University of Pennsylvania study showed that close to 28 percent of commercial truck drivers suffered from some aspect of sleep apnea. Yet, it’s important to note that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), does not have a regulation that specifically addresses sleep apnea as the condition can be successfully treated without affecting a driver’s “medically qualified to drive” status. Additionally, it’s up to each state to set a medical standard for driving a commercial motor vehicle and each motor carrier can have their own rules to which drivers must abide. In the end, it all comes down to whether or not the driver is able to do his or her job safely and remain fully alert while doing so.
So how do we judge whether or not a driver can do their job safely when they suffer from sleep apnea? Currently, researchers at the Tornoto Rehabilitation Institute are conducting a study at the University Health Network’s DriverLab to better understand how many Canadian truck drivers are affected by sleep apnea and how it impacts their work. It’s a first of its kind study, as currently there is no solid empirical evidence to show that drivers with the disorder are in some way impaired while behind the wheel due to unrestful sleep. “Sleep apnea is not the only cause of drowsiness, but it means that you don’t get a good sleep, so you’re sleepy throughout the day,” says the leader of the study Geoff Fernie. Researchers are also hoping to get a better understanding of how secondary factors beyond fatigue contribute to impaired driving—including stress, poor eating habits and pain from long hours in the driver’s seat.
And it’s not just sleep apnea for which we’re coming up short in regards to safety regulation. The FMCSA also suspended a reworking of the motor carrier safety rating system and halted development of a rule that would have required speed-limiting devices on trucks as well as an automatic emergency braking feature. Additionally, an ongoing effort to lobby for underride guards on trailers—large skirts on the underside of trailers that would stop a car from getting under the trailer in the event of a collision—has been unable to gain traction for years. “All the numbers are trending the wrong way,” says John Lannen, the executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition. “We’re over 4,000 deaths a year now in truck crashes. It’s been going up steadily…and we need to do something now.”