Sleeping disorder puts drivers at risk

Sleeping disorder puts drivers at risk

Print
Email
|

by STUART WATSON / NewsChannel 36

Bio | Email | Follow: @stuartwcnc

WCNC.com

Posted on November 8, 2011 at 12:49 AM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 8 at 1:02 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Shawn Johnson was born in Orangeburg. He lived in Charlotte. He loved orange Fanta soda. And he drove a big orange truck - a tractor trailer - and that's where he died.

Shawn's wife Dana just wanted his story to be told. But she also thinks his death might serve as a wake-up call for a matter of public health and safety.
 
Shawn loved his eight kids. He was in love with his wife Dana. He spent a lot of time on the road as a trucker. But he called her all the time.

"At night when I'd go to bed he wouldn't get off the phone," Dana recalls. "He would say, 'Just go to sleep. I want to listen to you sleep.' And I'd fall off to sleep. The next morning I'd pick up the phone: 'Hello?' 'Good morning sunshine!'"

Saturday, July 30, Dana got a very different phone call. It was the coroner from Anderson, South Carolina.

Dana remembers, "He said, 'Ma'am?' And as he said ma'am I said, 'No. Don't tell me that.'"

 Another trucker, southbound on Interstate 85 near Anderson had run off the right side of the road, overcorrected, swerved across the two left lanes taking out a pickup truck and an SUV, dragging them across the median into oncoming traffic where the 18-wheeler went airborne and hit Shawn head on.

 "He died on impact," Dana said.

 The impact took the cab clean off the truck's chassis. One firefighter called it the worst accident he'd seen in 24 years of responding to crashes. But Dana doesn't think of it as an "accident." "It could have been avoided," she says.

The trucker who caused the accident died as well. And he killed a third man - a young lawyer who practiced in Lincolnton who'd been towing his boat to the lake. A couple who were trapped in their Toyota Four-Runner under the trailer of the truck survived and were pried out of the SUV and airlifted to the hospital.

Witnesses told State Troopers the trucker had been weaving. He looked sleepy. And when the coroner called the trucker's wife to notify her of her husband's death, she told him he'd had a problem with sleep apnea for years.

Sleep Apnea is a medical condition in which the back of the throat closes during sleep, cuts off breathing, interrupts deep sleep and causes prolonged fatigue. For a driver steering 30 tons down I-85 at 65 miles an hour, the coroner ruled that fatigue was deadly.

Dana wants to know one thing: "Why wasn't it monitored better than it was?" And a three month I-Team investigation finds she is hardly the only grieving family member to ask that same question.
 One study estimates more than one in four truckers have sleep apnea - many of them undiagnosed and many of those who have been diagnosed are untreated.

"My first thought was: Why was he allowed to drive?" Dana asks.
 "I just think people don't realize how dangerous it is," says Wanda Lindsey, a grandmother who lives in New Braunfels, Texas, near San Antonio. Like Dana, Wanda married her best friend - and lost that best friend to a trucker with sleep apnea.

"He was who I wanted to call when I was sad or happy or sick or mad," Wanda says. "He was the first person I wanted to talk to. And I don't have my best friend anymore."

In May of last year Wanda and her husband John were driving to see their grandchild when the stopped as the last car in a construction zone near Texarkana.

An 18-wheeler traveling at 65 miles an hour hit their white Volvo from behind without slowing down.

John hung on for three days.

"But on Sunday morning, on Mothers’ Day, the doctor that had been taking care of him came in and told me there was no further brain activity and that there was just no chance he could ever be the man we knew before and he needed our permission to disconnect the machines," Wanda says, her voice breaking.

Wanda formed the John Lindsay Foundation to educate the public about the dangers of sleep apnea among truck drivers and put up a website: sleepapneakills.org.

Congress and the Department of Transportation have known about the problem of sleep apnea among a significant minority of truckers for years.

 A three year-old Government Accountability Office report names two high profile accidents linked to the condition: One that killed a Kansas mother and her son and another that claimed the life of a Tennessee state trooper in a construction zone in 2000. In both instances the trucker survived to face criminal charges.

 A medical advisory panel of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration - a regulatory authority under the US DOT - recommended that truckers be screened and treated for sleep apnea in 2008.
"So now we're three and a half years later and the DOT has taken no action," says Don Osterberg, Vice-President of Safety for Schneider National Trucking, one of the nation's largest trucking companies.

Osterberg realizes it's somewhat unusual for the vice-president of a trucking company to say publicly that his own industry needs more regulation. But he has experienced first-hand that sleep apnea should not cost truckers their jobs and treatment is an investment that pays off.

"This is a condition that can be very effectively treated," Osterberg says.
 
Most doctors treat sleep apnea with a machine called a CPAP - for continuous positive airway pressure. The CPAP pumps air through a tube and mask into the nose or nose and mouth, keeping the airway open and allowing continuous deep sleep.

Schneider Trucking led the nation in treating and screening every one of its drivers with sleep apnea - more than two thousand truckers in all.

"Here's the bottom line - the way I look at that - safety indeed does pay," says Osterberg. Because the results paid off in ways even he did not expect. "They have more energy. They tend to be more active; and as a result of being more active they lose weight," he says.

Schneider reports that serious truck accidents dropped by about thirty percent. The drivers health improved enough that long term health care costs for the drivers who were treated dropped measurably.

And drivers who were screened and treated at company expense proved less likely to quit the trucking line and jump ship to another employer. A group of academicians is working to verify Schneider's numbers and publish them.

"It was really a win-win-win: health care costs, safety, as well as fleet retention," Osterberg says.

The Truck Safety Coalition, a group that includes members who have lost family to truck crashes, applauded Osterberg. They gave him awards. But victims like Wanda Lindsay have a rather pointed question: "So if they can do it why can't the other trucking companies do it?"

To be fair, many large trucking companies have done it, followed Schneider's example by screening and treating their drivers for sleep apnea. But independents and small operators - the "mom and pops" - comprise the vast majority of truckers. And they worry about drivers being unfairly singled out based solely on an arbitrary body mass index - and of course the price tag.

"This is a somewhat nomadic industry and oftentimes they don't have health insurance to defray the cost of testing and so forth," says Osterberg.

Drivers without health insurance may never get tested unless push comes to shove from the DOT.
But the family members of truck wreck victims are unsympathetic to the money argument. As Dana

Johnson put it, "All the money in the world can't give a life back."

Safety advocates like Osterberg see progress in treating sleep apnea, like seat belts or drunk driving reforms, as inevitable - whether it comes from companies worried about legal, health and safety costs or from DOT mandates.

The question is how many more Shawn Johnsons will die while we wait.
 

Print
Email
|