Asleep at the Wheel? Truck Driver Fatigue and Sleep Apnea Get Closer Look

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18-wheeler rollover accident

Federal law outlines the regulations for truckers and other professional drivers, and trucking companies can pay large penalties for not ensuring their drivers rest as frequently as required.

Still, many freight companies do not closely monitor the sleep of their drivers, and some in fact force sleepy truckers to stay on the road in order to make tight deadlines.

While the penalties for these violations are somewhat effective, there are still a number of accidents caused by a professional driver asleep at the wheel, or fatigue that leads slowed reaction time or impaired abilities.

After an accident lawsuits are often filed. If the plaintiff’s legal team can prove in these cases that the driver was in violation of the federal Hours of Service rules, as the rest regulations are known, they have a good chance of winning the lawsuit. When a suit is lost or settled out of court, the driver and company both often pay a monetary cost.

The truckers also pay an emotional cost in many cases, knowing their actions have taken someone’s life.

The Job Pressures Of A Professional Driver

Because driver fatigue has historically been a leading cause of accidents involving tractor trailers and other similar vehicles, the federal government has enacted regulations designed to ensure professional drivers get the required rest and sleep to prevent fatigue from affecting their reaction time or ability to remain awake.

Most drivers are paid by the mile, and can therefore make more money the faster they reach their destination and can begin another run. Some companies may also offer bonuses for early arrival. Trucking companies may also book tight delivery schedules, making it hard to pick up a shipment and deliver it without breaking the Hours of Service rules.


hurt and killed every year large truck accidents

The Hours of Service Law

The first Hours of Service laws were established in 1907 and applied to railroad employees, who faced many of the same issues as today’s commercial drivers when faced with tight deadlines ( Since 1938, laws have been in place to govern truckers and HOS regulations are rooted in federal law predating the trucking industry (Learn more about the: Interstate Commerce Commission & History of HOS).  This means that the regulations actually predate the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that established a national interstate system by almost 20 years. The rules have been expanded and amended slightly several times throughout the years.

For over-the-road truck drivers who are hauling goods, the current limit is 11 hours of continuous driving, with a maximum 14-hour day (Department of Transportation).  After 14 hours, the trucker must rest for at least ten hours before resuming work.

This means there is a maximum of 77 hours set for a seven day work week, while drivers working an eight day week may work up to 88 hours.

It is important to note that these limits apply to drivers hauling merchandise or other goods; those who drive passengers in buses or other large vehicles must adhere to another set of HOS regulations.

By limiting the number of hours a trucker can drive consecutively without sleep, regulators hope to reduce drivers’ fatigue, increase safety and reduce 18-wheeler accidents. To this end, most other job duties — from loading and unloading to anytime spent in the truck not in the sleeper berth — are also considered working hours, and count against each trucker’s allotted driving time.

Regulating Drivers Who Suffer From Sleep Apnea

Another recent addition to the rules that regulate professional drivers’ rest address those who have sleep apnea or other similar conditions that may prevent restful sleep.

Effective since October 2014, the “Sleep Apnea Bill” (Public Law No. 113-45) has dictated that drivers who exhibit several risk factors for an obstructive sleep disorder must undergo a sleep study, you can view the law here.

Anytime a trucker’s medical certificate expires, the driver must pass an evaluation by a specially trained DOT examiner (FMCA Title 49, 391.41).

This now includes noting if he or she has risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea.

The examiner may issue a temporary certificate, but the driver will need to be tested and begin treatment during this period if a diagnosis is made.

In order to receive a full medical certificate, the driver will need to be able to demonstrate compliance with the prescribed treatment regimen. This is usually in the form of data recorded by their CPAP or Bipap device worn during sleep.

In many cases, the examiner will renew the temporary certificate based on a few weeks of data, and renew the full medical certificate for the full term after at least 60 days of compliance. The following year, a full year of data may be required (Legislation H.R. 3095).

Litigation Stemming From Hours Of Service Violations

Several lawsuits stemming from drowsy or sleep-deprived drivers have recently made the news, including a number of suits over the 2014 New Jersey accident that seriously injured comedian Tracy Morgan truck accident and killed fellow comic James McNair. A similar accident occurred in 2009 in Oklahoma which killed ten people according to the NYTimes report on the incident and resulting reaction from the trucking industry over drowsy driving regulations.

In the Oklahoma wreck, the trucker, asleep at the wheel, survived.

While truck accident litigation is typically based around a personal injury, if there are possible violations of the Hours of Service laws (HOS), they are heard in federal court.

Because all drivers are required to keep accurate logs showing their duty hours, it can sometimes be evident from the outset that the driver was in direct violation of the regulations. This may be considered negligence in many cases and grounds for truck accident attorneys to build a winning case.

The trucking company can also be held responsible if it can be proven that the driver was driving due to their tight deadlines that led the driver to pass the legal limits or if they were otherwise negligent in allowing the driver to operate outside of the Hours of Service regulations.

In most of these suits, the driver and trucking company seek an out-of-court settlement in order to limit their payouts and reduce legal costs. Wal-Mart, the company involved in the Morgan crash, spent millions to settle two suits related to this accident out of court earlier this year according to USAToday.

Looking Forward

According to the nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, accidents involving tractor trailers kill more than 5,000 people and injured more than 100,000 more in the United States, you can view the data here.

While many of these involve a number of factors, driver fatigue or drowsiness plays a role in far too many. There are already rules in place to regulate the amount of rest truckers get between runs and the maximum time they can spend on the road each day.

Some lawmakers, however, suggest more oversight of the industry, particularly where the health and sleep of drivers are concerned.


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