University of Minnesota Morris Research: Crash risk is 5X higher among truckers not adhering to sleep apnea treatment

March 21, 2016

Truck drivers who fail to adhere to treatment for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) have a fivefold increase in the risk of serious, preventable crashes, according to a new study led by University of Minnesota Morris faculty, staff, and student researchers and supported by the Roadway Safety Institute at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. This is the largest study of sleep apnea and crash risk among commercial motor vehicle drivers to date.

The study compares more than 1,600 truck drivers diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea to an equal number of drivers screened as unlikely to have OSA. Drivers with the disease were given a mask with an air pump worn while sleeping to keep the airway open (an auto-adjusting positive airway pressure machine), and its use was electronically monitored. Treatment carried no out-of-pocket costs under the study firm’s employee medical insurance plan. The rates of preventable serious truck crashes per 100,000 miles driven were compared across the study groups.

“To put our findings in context, if we look at 1,000 truck drivers each working for a year, the drivers with obstructive sleep apnea who refuse mandated treatment would have 70 preventable serious truck crashes, compared to 14 crashes experienced by both a control group and by drivers with sleep apnea who adhered to treatment,” said Stephen Burks, lead author of the study, and professor of economics and management at Morris.

Burks organizes Morris’s Truckers & Turnover Project (T&T), assisted by Jon Anderson, professor of statistics, and Rebecca Haider (’13), research coordinator. T&T performed the statistical analysis of the study data, acquired from Schneider the first major motor carrier to institute an internal OSA program, and its sleep apnea services provider, Precision Pulmonary Diagnostics (PPD). 

Anderson said, “I expect our sleep apnea findings will be carefully considered in the rulemaking process on sleep apnea standards for truck drivers and train operators just launched on March 8, 2016 by the US Department of Transportation.”

Burks said, “The paper’s results suggest putting obstructive sleep apnea screening standards in the medical exam commercial truck drivers take every two years. I am very pleased that Morris students have helped add to the scientific evidence that will be used in this important public policy-making process.”

T&T is a multi-year Morris research effort also involving faculty co-investigators at other institutions both in the U.S. and internationally. It has provided intensive research training for several generations of Morris students. The paper has nine Morris student co-authors, including three who served on the project after graduation, as well as co-authors from Harvard Medical School, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, University of California San Diego, and the sleep apnea services firm PPD. The senior medical co-author is Dr. Stefanos Kales, Harvard School of Public Health.

The Roadway Safety Institute, the USDOT Region 5 University Transportation Center, is driven by the goal of preventing crashes to reduce fatalities and life-changing injuries. The Institute is a consortium led by the University of Minnesota and also includes the University of Akron, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and Western Michigan University.

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