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Watchdog: Federal agency asleep at wheel to trucking problem

Aug. 10, 2011 at 3:10 a.m.


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John and Wanda Lindsay slowed in their white Hyundai as they neared the Texarkana interstate construction zone.

The Lindsays headed north in May 2010 to visit their adult children, enjoy retirement and begin a new life filled with travel.

But seconds after traffic stopped on the busy roadway, a 40-ton tractor-trailer, which traveled at 65 miles per hour, slammed into the couple's car, which was last in the long, stalled line. John Lindsay, 70, died on Mother's Day of severe head trauma and other injuries.

After the fatal crash, a Victoria lawyer found the truck driver recently had been diagnosed with severe sleep apnea, a medical condition that prevents quality sleep and thus causes daytime drowsiness.

Although evidence gleaned from separate studies shows a great number of U.S. commercial truck drivers suffer from sleep apnea, federal regulators have so far failed to crack down.

"There was no reason for him to die," Wanda Lindsay, 66, said. "That man should never have been in that truck. The company basically put a bomb on the road."

Last year, the country boasted 6.8 million registered commercial vehicle drivers, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency that regulates commercial trucking. Of those drivers, the federal agency estimates between 1.9 million and 4 million suffer from some form of apnea.

"It's a huge problem when you consider sleep apnea affects the drivers' ability to stay awake," said Jim Cole, a Victoria lawyer. He represents Linsday in a lawsuit against the trucking company that killed her husband. "Trucking companies and federal agencies have known about this problem for 20 years, and it has still not been addressed."

Almost 3,400 people died in 2009 during crashes involving commercial trucks, and 74,000 others were injured. More than 1,000 deaths and 20,000 injuries might have been caused by drivers with sleep apnea, according to estimates provided by separate studies.

Cole has led national efforts to draw awareness to apnea and driving. This year, he wrote a professional paper and presented his findings to the American Association of Justice and trucking companies.

The lifestyle maintained by truckers, Cole notes, lends itself to sleep apnea. Drivers remain sedentary for long stretches, lack ample time for exercise and often eat truck stop and other unhealthy foods. Many drivers become overweight and even diabetic, predictors of apnea.

Drivers with apnea perform, on average, as poorly as those whose blood alcohol levels exceed the legal limit, according to the federal government.

A 1995 study by the American College of Chest Physicians found 78 percent of truck drivers suffer from apnea. Seven years later, the federal agency published a similar study that showed 28 percent - or almost one-third - of drivers suffer from the problem.

That study was sponsored by the American Trucking Associations, the group that represents the interest of truckers.

"Trucking companies have made a conscious decision to ignore the problem, putting profits over safety," Cole, the lawyer, said. "If the wheels aren't turning, they aren't making money."

Cole, Lindsay and others demand the federal government create regulations that force companies to screen drivers for apnea and then mandate and monitor ongoing treatment. Some industry professionals, however, say not so fast.

Boyd Stephenson, manager of safety and security operations for the Virginia-based American Trucking Associations, said complex sleep apnea does not lend itself to easy answers.

First, doctors who serve on federal advisory committees suggest different approaches to screening tests. Some say drivers with a Body Mass Index of greater than 30 should be tested for apnea; others say 36.

"Thus, the industry is in a bind," Stephenson said. "Medical examiners are unsure as to whether or not to certify drivers as fit for duty and under what circumstances. This confusion leads to uneven standards for medical certification. Presently motor carriers are unsure as to what their responsibilities are in this arena."

Additionally, most drivers have a Body Mass Index of 30 or greater, Stephenson said. It would prove too costly to pull this many drivers from the road and test them even if the government required it, he said.

Already, the industry struggles to keep trucks moving. Since the early 1990s, the country has faced a truck-driver shortage, Cole said, and annual turnover rates remain as great as 70 percent.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration plans to discuss sleep apnea and other topics this month.

Until regulations are in place, Cole will continue to fight for meaningful reform, he said.

Wanda Lindsay, meanwhile, struggles to make sense of her husband's death. She and her children created two websites and a nonprofit foundation to bring attention to sleep apnea and truck drivers.

The websites are JohnLindsayFoundation.org and SleepApneaKills.org.

After living in Victoria for 21 years, Lindsay now lives in New Braunfels. The lawsuit she filed against the trucking company reaches court in November.

"We found a way to make John's death not totally senseless," the widow said. "We were married almost 46 years. If there's something we can do to prevent others from suffering like my family did, then we need to help."

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