CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A five-month investigation by NewsChannel 36 has found that one factor in the increasing number of trucking deaths is seldom reported and largely unregulated: sleep apnea.
Drowsy driving kills more people on America’s highways than distracted driving, a top sleep expert recently told a motor carrier safety advisory panel.
But Dr. Charles Czeisler of Harvard University Medical School says sleep apnea gets a lot less attention than other factors in deadly accidents involving tractor-trailers.
“It actually is a war zone out there,” said Dr. Charles Czeisler, attributing drowsy driving to one in five crashes.
The number of Americans who died in commercial truck crashes ticked up slightly last year to about 4,000, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator recently told Congress.
“I would argue that fatigue as a causal factor in truck-involved crashes is underreported, not over-reported,” said Don Osterberg, Vice President of Safety for Schneider National Trucking. “Absent the commercial driver acknowledging that he or she fell asleep, law enforcement doesn’t record the crash as fatigue related.”
Sleep apnea – the absence of breath during sleep – interrupts deep sleep and leads to prolonged sleepiness. Commercial drivers are easily treated, typically with a breathing machine. But an estimated 85% of cases are left undiagnosed. Truckers fear losing their jobs and expensive tests, and medical examiners often fail to pick up on the signs of sleep apnea.
The results can be devastating to families.
On July 30, near Anderson, S.C., a tractor-trailer jackknifed and crossed the median on I-85, killing the driver and two others, a 38-year old truck driver Clay LeShawn Johnson of Charlotte and a 33-year-old attorney Jeremy Scott Wilson, who practiced in Lincolnton.
Although the coroner found out that the trucker who ran off the road, 69-year-old Eddie Wyatt of Rockmart, Georgia, suffered from sleep apnea and had only recently returned to driving, the official accident report identifies “improper lane usage” as the primary factor in the crash and makes no mention of fatigue.
“It could have been avoided,” said Dana Johnson, Clay LeShawn Johnson’s widow. “My first thought was why was he allowed to drive?”
On October 13, along I-85 in Gaston County, one 18-wheeler slammed into the back of a second tractor trailer in a fiery crash, killing one driver and shutting down the southbound lanes for the better part of a day.
Gastonia Police released the accident report this week, saying the surviving driver was travelling at only 32 miles an hour in the left lane when he was struck at 1:47 am, killing the oncoming driver, 45-year-old Eddie Fitzgerald Lee of Greenville, S.C.
The company which owned the slow-moving truck, Saga Freight Logistics of Brownsville, Texas, received 64 fatigue-related violations in the last two years and ranked in the bottom two percent of the nation in “hours of service” violations.
Gastonia Police declined comment on the role of fatigue in the fatal October accident, pending the District Attorney’s decision of whether to prosecute.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has tried to reduce driver fatigue by limiting hours of service to 11 hours each day, with a proposed decrease to 10 hours each day to allow for rest.
But commercial drivers with sleep apnea can spend a full eight hours in bed with their eyes closed and get back behind the wheel just as sleepy as if they got only a few hours of sleep, according to sleep medicine experts who testified before a motor carrier safety advisory committee last week.
The advisory panel, along with a panel of medical experts, is considering a recommendation that the DOT ask medical examiners to screen severely obese truckers for sleep apnea before giving them a biannual medical certificate which allows them to drive.
This week, Dana Johnson of Charlotte is wrestling with her first Christmas without her husband.
She is suing the trucking company involved in her husband’s death. But, she says, “All the money in the world won’t bring a life back.”