Study shows truck drivers with untreated apnea at risk

U Morris researchers found the drivers are more vulnerable to preventable accidents.

Keaton Schmitt

Truck drivers throughout the country travel thousands of miles every day without screening for a condition that can increase crash risk by 500 percent.
 
 
A team of researchers from the University of Minnesota-Morris analyzed data from Schneider National to compare the crash risks of drivers treated for obstructive sleep apnea  against those who are not treated and those without OSA. In a study released last week, the team found untreated drivers with OSA were more likely to have a preventable crash. 
 
 
Drivers with OSA were split into groups of those who chose to follow their treatment fully, partially or not at all, and then compared results with healthy drivers, said Stephen Burks, a Morris economics professor and study lead.
 
 
Compared to healthy drivers, drivers with OSA who didn’t follow treatments had a “5-fold” greater preventable crash risk, according to the study. 
 
 
Researchers compensated for variables that could have skewed the data, such as driver age, and still found untreated drivers had much higher crash risk, said Jon Anderson, a co-author on the study and Morris statistics professor.
 
 
The study also found drivers with OSA who comply with treatment are no more likely to crash than healthy drivers, Anderson said.
 
 
The study, however, can’t tell how much of the increase is from sleep apnea and how much is from risky habits the untreated group of drivers may have, said Burks. He said those who chose not to undergo treatment could take risks more frequently.
 
 
Currently, drivers must be medically examined and found fit to drive every two years, he said, adding that a clinical exam can’t diagnose OSA because adding screening procedures to the exam is controversial.
 
 
“The question of whether sleep apnea is something that [vehicle operators] should be screened for … has been a contentious issue for some time,” Burks said.
 
 
Potential screenings have come under criticism because of limited evidence about the effects OSA has on commercial drivers, he said. 
 
 
However, there is significant evidence for increased crash risk due to OSA among the general population as well as physiological evidence that it would be associated with crash risk, Burks said.
 
 
“Some type of sleep apnea screening standards are appropriate,” Burks said.
 
 
The team analyzed a large amount of data, said Matt Bombyk, the study’s co-author and University alumnus. The research involved weekly updates on about 3,000 drivers and information about each one.
 
 
“It would take 10 or more minutes for the dataset to just load. … Statistical routines would go for a day or two,” Bombyk said.
 
 
According to the study, the team also found untreated drivers were more likely to quit or be fired, keeping their diagnoses private to go work at another company.
 
 
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration can’t tell examiners when to send drivers for OSA testing because a law requires the FMCSA to enter a formal rule-making process, which takes a couple of years, he said.
 
 
Recently, the FMCSA announced it would gather information to find if there should be OSA screening standards during the exams.
 
 
Megan Bush, safety policy manager at the American Trucking Associations, said it’s important for the FMCSA to collect data and opinions before making a decision, but it should take into account all factors and stress accuracy. 
 
 
“Because that process is now open, the [study] is very timely,” Burks said.