The 76-year-old driver in Miami, Oklahoma never saw the stopped cars lined up behind a minor highway accident. He overran several vehicles, continuing 270 feet after the initial impact. He never applied his brakes. Investigators of this 2009 accident say the truck driver was asleep at the wheel. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that his acute sleep loss, disrupted shift change, and mild sleep apnea were the cause of his fatigue.
Fully-laden commercial trucks are 53-foot-long powerhouses. They harbor up to 600 horsepower under the hood, to haul loads as heavy as forty tons on our highways and side roads. Belching diesel fumes and burned carbon, these highway dragons are, too often, the stuff of nightmares.
In the hands of a rested, trained truck driver, the typical commercial truck carries millions of pounds of cargo over thousands of miles of road without incident.
But consider the truck driver who:
- changes from evening to daytime shifts
- has health issues
- is coming off a 60-hour driving week
Then these over-the-road trucks become blunt instruments of tragedy.
A Healthy Truck Driver
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the NTSB all have their own recommendations for safe operation of commercial trucks. Contributing causes of commercial truck driver fatigue include:
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea—this is cited by the NTSB in case after case as the cause of fatal highway commercial truck accidents
- Violations of HOS Rules—FMCSA has strict hours-of-service (HOS) rules governing over-the-road truck driver hours, but these are sometimes deliberately ignored by independent contractors intent on getting in one more load
- Violations of Restart Rules—After driving 60 or 70 hours (for seven or eight days), drivers must be off duty 34 hours in a row
- Sleep-Restrictive Work Patterns—Day cab operators often change from daytime to overnight shifts without sufficient days between shifts to reset their circadian rhythms
A truck driver can legally put in a 14-hour day, including 11 hours of driving. The truck driver may drive 70 hours in eight consecutive days. A long list of exceptions allows many truck drivers to operate vehicles for as much as 16 hours in a day. These are grueling work conditions for anyone, let alone a person operating a 40-ton vehicle.
Share the Road, Share the Risk
Nearly everything we buy, eat, and own travels by truck. We share our roads with trucks. We trust truck drivers to operate legally and safely. We also, unsuspectingly, share the risks with illegal operators, those who drink and drive, and drivers desperate to turn a profit in a tight economy.
The risk is great; the NTSB estimates that driver fatigue played a role in 31 percent of heavy-truck accidents. The DOT puts the figure at around 12 percent, from a 2006 study. Many truck drivers will not report sleep-deprivation, to avoid responsibility for accidents.
Our national adult obesity epidemic parallels a rise in obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). In a presentation to the Washington Sleep Leadership Summit this past February, the NTSB pointed to OSA as a leading cause of operator fatigue across trucking, marine, and aviation industries.
Undiagnosed sleep apnea, caused by obesity or other health issues, can cause a truck driver with an otherwise spotless safety record to lose attention, react slowly, or even fall asleep behind the wheel. The 76-year-old driver in the Oklahoma accident survived. Less fortunate were the 10 fatalities he caused.
Following any commercial truck accident, a thorough investigation and expert legal guidance are needed to uncover the cause, preserve your rights, and provide medical and financial relief.