The Sleep That Kills

In 1995, Timothy Douglas, 40, fell asleep at the wheel of his rig and hit a pickup truck carrying 14 people, killing seven. A few months later, he had two more accidents in his personal vehicle.

“I told everyone there was something wrong with me,” he recalls. He suffered from severe headaches, exhaustion and snoring so loud that other truckers could hear him outside his sleeper. Yet his primary physician could find nothing wrong. Finally, a neurologist sent him to a sleep lab, where Douglas was diagnosed with sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening disorder that affects between 5 percent and 9 percent of Americans, most of them men.

Truckers are even more at risk due to their often sedentary lifestyle and poor diet, which contribute to obesity (a factor often linked with sleep apnea) and erratic schedules that interfere with normal sleep patterns. Some experts say as many as 25 percent of truckers may be affected.

Had Douglas been diagnosed and treated earlier, seven people might still be alive. Yet many truckers hesitate to get diagnosis or treatment, fearing they will lose their jobs. Those who do seek help face long waiting periods before they can be tested, followed by weeks waiting to be outfitted with a continuous positive airway pressure device, or CPAP, the most common form of treatment.

Truckers with sleep apnea, and the carriers they drive for, are in a difficult position. Failing to seek help can endanger lives. Seeking help, and thereby identifying a potential health problem, may threaten their livelihood and increase liability in the case of an accident. What’s the industry to do?

Dennis and Jane Amberson, who own a sleep lab and clinical research company in Gadsden, Ala., may have the answer. They have applied for grants for a study that would test and treat truckers for sleep apnea. They are looking for a carrier to agree to have all of its drivers tested. Those diagnosed with sleep apnea would be treated immediately to lessen the possibility of an accident. The grants would cover all costs – testing, treatment and follow-up. The goal, Dennis says, is to tackle one of trucking’s most under-emphasized safety problems while doing “everything we can to keep that driver driving.”

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The Ambersons’ plan is a good step toward a program of diagnosis and treatment that could work for trucking. The key will be carriers and truckers who are willing to move beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell” toward a true solution.

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