Marian Benjamin

Interstate highway 10 stretches across the southern part of the United States from Jacksonville, Fla, to Santa Monica, Calif. It is a major traffic corridor for commercial trucking, and Sunday night on the way home from our daughter’s house in Phoenix, which sits squarely on the 10, my husband and I had a chance to get a little too close and personal with one of the behemoths of the road.

Cruising along in the left lane, we passed semi after semi, which were stretched out like a giant convoy for miles. As we passed one of them, it began to “drift” toward us. We honked frantically and could see the driver start and jerk his vehicle sharply to the right, just missing us.

Drowsy driving. According to the National Sleep Foundation, it is an under-reported and under-recognized public safety issue. In the United States, approximately 5,600 people are killed annually in crashes involving commercial trucks.1 The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has concluded that 1,500 people die each year in the United States when drivers fall asleep behind the wheel; another 76,000 are injured.2 Not only are these crashes costly in terms of injuries and lives lost, they also have a hefty economic impact: $75,637 is the average cost of a large truck crash; $3.4 million is the average cost of a fatal truck crash.3

Why are truck drivers falling asleep? One reason is sleep deprivation.4 Researchers found that in a US/Canadian study,5 drivers averaged 4.78 hours of verified sleep per day (3.83 for those on a steady 13-hour night schedule to 5.38 hours for those on a steady 10-hour day schedule). Yikes! And sleep apnea. A study sponsored by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the American Transportation Research Institute of the American Trucking Associations found that 28.1% of those studied holding a commercial driver’s license had some form of sleep apnea.2 An article in Heavy Duty Trucking6 reported that 66% of truck drivers were at risk for sleep disorders; their average weight was 240 pounds, well within the range of obesity.

The article went on to report that truckers rarely see a doctor, do not have access to regular health care, and have trouble following medicine regimens, and “huge numbers” of drivers fear letting anyone—especially their employers—know that they have a sleep disorder. Some admit that they look at the Medical Examination Report for Commercial Driver Fitness Determination and “just say no” to the question on sleep disorders, because they are afraid they would be off the road for at least 6 weeks while they were tested and treated.

People are becoming more aware of the dangers of drowsy driving and OSA, though, and states are beginning to look at the trucking industry with an eye toward demanding that semi drivers are screened and treated. The cost of in-laboratory testing is becoming more economical, and diagnostic and CPAP devices are smaller and cheaper. CMS has ruled to accept home (and possibly in-truck bunk) testing for reimbursement, and insurance companies could follow its lead. As well, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has posted 14 guidelines addressing OSA; and some trucking companies, are beginning to test their drivers, treat them, and pick up the entire bill. There are other programs, too, that offer education and tips about drowsy driving: Drowsy & Distracted Driving from the National Highway Traffic Commission; Respironics’ Sleep Well, Drive Safe program; and Drive Alert, Drive Alive, the National Sleep Foundation’s educational outreach.

These efforts are bearing fruit as more truckers become aware of the dangers of drowsy driving when they put the pedal to the metal.

Marian Benjamin
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  1. National Sleep Foundation. State of the States Report on Drowsy Driving: Summary of Findings. November 2008. Available at: [removed][/removed]. Accessed May 14, 2009.
  2. Canadian and US Truckers May Not Be Getting Enough Sleep. Auto and Road User Journal. Available at: Accessed May 13, 2009.
  3. Sleep Well, Drive Safe. Available at: www.trucking/ Accessed May 13, 2009.
  4. Pack AI, Maisi G, Staley B, et al. Impaired performance in commercial drivers. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2006;174:446-54.
  5. Miller MM, Miller JC, Lipsitz JJ, Walsh JK, Dennis C. The sleep of long-haul truck drivers. N Engl J Med. 1997;337:755-62.
  6. Garber B. Health on the highway. Available at: Accessed May 14, 2009.