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Sleep and the Transportation Industry

The National Geographic Channel recently produced and aired a special documentary titled “Sleepless in America” that focused on what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called a public health epidemic of sleep deprivation in the United States. One of the primary issues that the show addressed was the impact that drowsy driving has on the safety of America’s highways, and of the specific need for better controls on the part of the transportation industry.

According to the report, 28 percent of truck drivers in the United States are suffering from obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that keeps them from being able to breathe normally through the course of the night and causes daytime drowsiness and exhaustion. In addition to the high number of truck drivers experiencing this health issue, a study conducted by the National Sleep Foundation has shown that six out of ten of America’s train operators, half of all pilots, 44 percent of truck drivers and 29 percent of those who drive the American public around in taxis and buses indicate that they either never get a good night’s sleep or rarely feel as if they do. Though not all have signed on, many of the leaders of America’s transportation industry have taken action to improve the quality and quantity of sleep that drivers and operators are getting. One of the most important actions that have been taken has been seen in companies that have required screening for sleep apnea among their drivers.

According to Don Osterberg, Senior Vice President of Safety and Security for Schneider Trucking, “We employ roughly 13,000 commercial drivers and we have prescreened all of our existing drivers for obstructive sleep apnea and if they prescreen at potential risk we schedule them for a sleep study. If they’re found to be positive for obstructive sleep apnea, they are issued a continuous positive airway device, and they’re trained by the staff at the clinic on how to use it.”

The National Geographic special introduces viewers to several truck drivers who have begun using the devices on a regular basis, with several of those profiled indicating that despite the discomfort that it may present or the difficulty in getting acclimated to sleeping with a mask, the continuous positive airway pressure machine has made a significant and important difference. One driver said, “I really think that being diagnosed with sleep apnea and now being treated, it probably saved my life. And I know it probably saved somebody else’s life as well.”

Continuous positive airway pressure is the most common and effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, but many do not use it continuously due to discomfort. Weight loss is also helpful in decreasing the number of events experienced. CPAP has been around for 35 years, and works very well, but if the diagnosed patient doesn’t wear it then the condition remains. Treating obstructive sleep apnea significantly reduces the incidents of drowsy driving.

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