Embattled Sleep Apnea Rules Withdrawn by DOT

In July, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that two of its agencies would no longer be seeking to make rules regarding sleep apnea screening and treatment for drivers. Although the announcement cited “not enough information available” as the reason why the rules were withdrawn, it is commonly accepted that this is an antiregulatory action intended to help industry. However, it’s unclear whether the action will actually end up helping the industries in question.

A person driving a semi truck no longer has to worry about the sleep apnea regulation

Rulemaking, Interrupted

Initially, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) tried to issue informal safety guidelines that medical examiners were expected to follow when certifying drivers who were at risk for sleep apnea. However, Congress passed a bill that President Obama signed, requiring the agency to pursue action through the formal rulemaking process. As a result, the FMCSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) began pursuing formal sleep apnea rules in March 2016. The goal was to set clear standards because trucking companies felt the informal guidelines–a patchwork of state and federal guidance documents–was seen to be confusing and difficult to follow. In fact, some truckers and their companies have accused doctors and equipment providers of trying to profit from unclear rules.

In the absence of a clear federal rule, these tensions will continue, and it’s likely that drivers and trucking companies will be exposed to additional liability as a result.

Proposed Rules Would Be Expensive

However, the sleep rules were heavily criticized by trucking companies and independent truckers in large part because of the likely cost. Some studies suggest that as much as 40% of all truckers would have to undergo sleep apnea screening. And that many of them would end up requiring CPAP or oral appliance therapy to keep driving.

With the high proportion of drivers affected, there is no doubt that it would be expensive for the industry to implement any kind of comprehensive sleep apnea screening program.

Sacrificing Safety for Politics

Although the DOT release claims that there is not enough information to move forward with sleep apnea guidelines, there is actually much information available about the risk of sleep apnea for truckers and train operators. We know, for example, that 2013’s deadly Bronx train derailment was likely due to sleep apnea. This led to the screening of all commuter rail drivers.

We also know that truckers who have untreated sleep apnea may be five times more likely to be involved in an accident. And we know that getting sleep apnea treated reduces the accident risk to essentially the same as drivers without sleep apnea.

What we don’t know is how well the old guidelines will work to keep truckers–and those that share the roads with them–safe on the highway.

If you are looking for information about sleep apnea risks and treatment options in the Detroit area, please call (248) 825-8277 today for an appointment with sleep dentist Dr. Jeffrey S. Haddad at the Michigan Center for TMJ and Sleep Wellness.