Despite more stringent regulations put in place by the United States Department of Transportation and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), sleep deprivation and driver fatigue are still major causes of large truck accidents in the United States. According to the FMCSA, approximately 73,000 big rigs were involved in injury crashes in 2013, and nearly 4,000 more were involved in accidents that resulted in at least one fatality. It is estimated that about one third of those crashes were caused by fatigued truck drivers falling asleep at the wheel.
A recent study by the Harvard School of Medicine Sleep Medicine Division revealed that nearly 50 percent of truck drivers who were survey participants admitted to drifting off while driving. Although there are regulations in place that limit the number of hours truckers are allowed to drive without taking a break for a specific amount of time, many drivers continue to violate rest guidelines. An article in the Journal of Public Health reports that, in a recent survey, violators cited a variety of reasons for driving while fatigued.
- Approximately one third of violators (283) admitted to driving longer than allowed because of tight schedules and difficult deadlines.
- Financial reasons were the cause of 260 (31 percent) of truckers driving while drowsy.
- About 22 percent of drivers claimed that traffic jams and inclement weather caused them to remain behind the wheel for longer period of time.
Truck Drivers and Sleep Apnea
Although an extensive number of hours behind the wheel and the lack of adequate sleep are common factors in drowsy driving crashes, sleep apnea is responsible for many truck drivers falling asleep as well. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration estimates that approximately 28 percent of commercial truck drivers in the United States suffer from sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is a medical condition that interferes with restful sleep and causes fatigue. Since sleep apnea can lead to drowsy driving that often results in trucking crashes, drivers who have been diagnosed with moderate to severe forms of the condition could be disqualified from driving commercially. Unfortunately, many drivers with sleep apnea aren’t aware that they suffer from the condition. A study published in the journal Sleep reports that just 4.4 percent of truckers who were surveyed reported having a sleep apnea diagnosis. When the truckers in the study were tested for the condition, however, it was discovered that an astounding 41 percent actually suffered from the condition.
When untreated, sleep apnea can cause extreme fatigue which raises a trucker’s risk for becoming involved in a crash. Experts report that fatigued driving is very similar to driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Sleep deprived drivers often exhibit symptoms like impaired judgement, lack of coordination, decreased visual acuity, and poor reaction times that mimic the behaviors of someone with a blood alcohol content level of 0.05 percent. Truckers who suffer from sleep apnea are five times more likely to become involved in a crash than those without the condition.
Sleep Apnea is so pervasive in truck drivers that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is currently studying the condition and making efforts to educate truck drivers and motor carriers about it. Some of the warning signs that might indicate a trucker suffers from sleep apnea include:
- Extreme snoring
- Continuous daytime fatigue or sleepiness
- Issues with concentration and memory
- Disrupted sleep
- Gasping for air or choking while asleep
Technology to Prevent Truckers from Drifting Off Behind the Wheel
While technology won’t prevent drivers from becoming drowsy in the first place, there are a variety of gadgets available that are designed to wake up drivers, alarm them when they nod off, and even some that monitor speed and recognize obstructions in the road. Innovative phone apps are now available that can detect when a trucker’s eyes are closed, and high tech ear pieces sense when a driver’s head dips too far forward. While these gadgets are available to truckers as well as drivers of passenger cars, many commercial motor carriers are going a step further with equipment that even applies the brakes when a semi-truck driver nods off or becomes distracted.
Who Can Be Held Liable When a Trucker Falls Asleep?
When a truck driver falls asleep and causes a crash, he or she may not be the only one who can be held liable for injuries, property damages or death. Depending upon the circumstances surrounding the incident, victims may be able to recover damages from the trucking company who employed the trucker under the theories of vicarious liability, as long as the driver was acting within the scope of his or her employment when the crash occurred. When suing under these theories, a victim does no need to prove that the trucking company was negligent.