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FMCSA and FRA Jointly Take Steps Towards Safety

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is considering different methods to keep professional drivers awake behind the wheel. The agency has published a Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to solicit public comment, with an aim towards ensuring that drivers are fit to work and do not have untreated sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a medical condition in which a person’s airway temporarily closes during sleep, stopping or reducing breathing for short periods. The condition is treatable, but because people with OSA seldom remember the breathing problems when they wake in the morning, many do not know to seek help. Because OSA interferes with restful sleep, people who have the condition are chronically sleep-deprived are at high risk for slowed responses, impaired judgment, and falling asleep behind the wheel.

OSA has caused accidents in the past, including the 2000 crash involving a tractor-trailer that crossed the median and hit a Tennessee Highway Patrol vehicle going in the other direction, fatally killing the state trooper. The driver of the truck had been treated for OSA but had not disclosed the condition to his employers and had not been evaluated for his physical fitness to drive. He also had untreated hypothyroidism. The National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB) ruled that complications of one or both of these medical problems had predisposed him to impairment and caused the accident. OSA has also been implicated in a number of railway accidents and is a serious concern in aviation as well.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently issued a rule that requires screening pilots who have certain risk factors for OSA. But neither FMCSA nor the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has robust policies in place to ensure critical personnel are healthy enough to work. FMCSA has issued guidelines and certifications for medical examiners, but has no enforcement mechanism. OSA is not the only medical condition that can impair a person’s ability to safely operate heavy machinery, nor is it the only medical issue not adequately covered by regulations. For these reasons, the NTSB has placed “require medical fitness for duty” on its “most wanted” list for changes to national transportation-related regulation.

FMCSA and FRA are now jointly beginning the process of amending the problem by using the public feedback process for rule-making to solicit information on OSA, its potential impacts on the transportation industry, and on the costs and benefits of new safety regulations. The regulations themselves have not yet been written, but would involve identifying drivers and train operators who have risk factors for OSA (these include obesity, advancing age, family history of OSA, and snoring) and requiring that they be tested and, if necessary, treated, as a condition of employment.

The recent electronic logging device Final Rule passed in December of last year was the FMCSA’s initial step towards a safer work environment for drivers. Paper logs have long been used to track drivers’ Hours of Service (HOS) in line with federal regulations. The ELD Final Rule is designed to create safer road conditions by allowing fleet businesses to closely track driver work hours and give drivers time to rest.

Along with the ELD Final Rule and the ‘first step’ to a sleep apnea rule, government agencies continue to work towards keeping drivers well-rested and healthy behind the wheel.  

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