Researchers in Europe say that commercial drivers, such as those who drive buses and trucks, may deny or underreport serious sleep trouble in order to protect their jobs. At a recent meeting of the European Lung Foundation, researchers presented the results of a study focused on daytime sleepiness levels in commercial drivers versus the general public. According to a MedlinePlus review, the study focused on people with a condition known as sleep apnea, often targeted as a serious risk factor for auto accidents.
Sleep apnea is a medical condition that causes sufferers to have trouble breathing when asleep. People with the illness can be left with depression, headaches and high levels of sleepiness. As the MedlinePlus article points out, bus and truck drivers who have sleep apnea can have their licenses or jobs revoked if their employers think the medical condition will affect their ability to stay alert behind the wheel. Fear of losing their jobs may cause professional drivers who suffer from the illness to underestimate or hold back about how sleepy they really are — which may lead to serious, even fatal, auto accidents.
The researchers in Switzerland looked at two groups of sleep apnea sufferers — a group of 34 commercial drivers and a group of 74 people who don’t drive for a living. The study looked at actual levels of sleep disturbance versus the level of sleepiness that each person reported feeling. At the beginning, each group had the same level of problems sleeping. The commercial drivers, however, only reported an average sleepiness level of around 8, compared to the other group, which reported an average sleepiness of 11. (Higher scores mean higher feelings of sleepiness.)
Commercial Drivers Less Likely to Use Device to Aid Sleep
What the researchers found six months later is even more disturbing. All the participants were supposed to undergo treatment with a device called CPAP, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure and is supposed to help people with sleep apnea keep breathing throughout their sleep. According to the study, commercial drivers not only used the CPAP machine less than the non-professional drivers, but they also had more drop-in visits to sleep clinics. These results led the study’s authors to think that the bus and truck drivers were struggling with their illness and its symptoms more than other patients.
The study also asked both groups to report how sleepy they felt during the day after their six months of CPAP treatment. Again, the bus and truck drivers seem to have underestimated their own sleeplessness, scoring an average of only 4.8 on the sleepiness scale. The other group, which used the device more often and had fewer unplanned sleep clinic visits, reported an average sleepiness level of 7.7, in contrast.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, people who suffer from sleep apnea shouldn’t drive if they aren’t undergoing proper treatment for their condition. The NHTSA says that sleep apnea is “a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that should not be ignored.” Unfortunately, it appears from the European study that some people who drive buses and trucks for a living are doing just that — and they may be risking more lives than their own if they get behind the wheel when they’re tired.