No one can argue that fatigue and sleep disorders are a serious hazard for commercial truck drivers and other motorists. Driving while drowsy is a contributing factor in at least 100,000 accidents every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and it results in about 1,500 deaths, 70,000 injuries and an estimated $12.5 billion in costs.
The relationship between driver fatigue and vehicle accidents is so well-known that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) enforces hours of service regulations for truckers to ensure commercial drivers have ample opportunity to rest and thereby reduce highway accidents. But assessing one’s own level of fatigue accurately is nearly impossible, which is part of the reason truckers use electronic driver logs to alert them to take breaks after driving for a certain number of hours.
Beyond this use of record-keeping technology, disagreement exist on what more (if anything) can be done to further protect truckers, motorists and trucking companies against the injuries and liability that result from drivers who fall asleep at the wheel.
Traditionally, FMCSA has addressed the problem of driver fatigue and sleep disorders by issuing general guidelines to industry medical examiners on how to detect and treat it. But given the ambiguity of when a driver should be tested for a sleep disorder, the potential liability on trucking companies who miss a diagnosis and the high cost of testing, diagnosing and treating sleep disorders — an estimated $1 billion each year — Representatives Larry Bucshon (R-IN) and Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) proposed a bill that requires FMCSA to establish specific rules for how companies must manage this situation. On Sept. 18, 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously (405 to zero) passed this bill.
By forcing FMCSA to go through the rulemaking process, instead of issuing general guidelines, transportation companies can avoid incurring the costs and liability of testing and treating commercial drivers for sleep disorders unless the FMCSA determines that the process is truly needed and is cost-effective and consistent across companies in the industry.
Bucshon released a statement after the bill’s passage in Congress: “If FMSCA wants to weigh in on sleep apnea, then they should go through the proper, transparent rule making process. With such tremendous potential costs to the truck and bus industry, it is critical that we include all the stakeholders, including medical professionals and the trucking community, in any thorough analysis of fatigue-related crashes.”
The bill is endorsed by American Trucking Associations, the American Bus Association, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the National School Transportation Association, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and United Motorcoach Association. It now needs to pass the Senate.