Q&A: Losing Sleep Over the FMCSA

Q: I’ve just read something that makes no sense to me, and seems like an invasion of people’s privacy to boot.

We’re a motor carrier, and as such are subject to what’s been increasingly intrusive safety regulation by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The FMCSA regulates how many hours our drivers are allowed to drive, which I guess at least makes some safety sense, but also when they’re required to take breaks, for how long, how many hours they have to rest between shifts, on and on, a lot of which makes no sense.

I mean, the FMCSA can regulate the bejabbers out of how many hours’ “rest” a driver must have, but it can’t actually make them use the time for that purpose. We have drivers come in who have mostly spent the time fighting with their wives, hanging out at the local bar or bowling alley or something with their buddies, running errands, working on their houses, or doing half a dozen other things. If a driver seems really tired, we’ll pull him off a shift, but usually we can’t know.

Now the FMCSA is trying to get us to monitor not just how long our drivers sleep but also how well they sleep. They want us to have the drivers checked for sleep apnea, which, as I understand it, occurs when someone snores so hard that they wake themselves up. Isn’t this getting a little crazy? Where will all this silliness stop? Is the next thing going to be that I have to hire babysitters to make sure the drivers sleep right, eat right, all that?


A: I’ll get right to the point. “Sleep apnea” isn't just snoring; it’s any kind of breathing irregularity during sleep that’s sufficiently pronounced to interrupt it. In the extreme instance, a sufferer can’t get continuous sleep for more than a few minutes at a time, resulting in a symptom called narcolepsy, which means a tendency to doze off inappropriately during normal waking times — including while driving.

In fact, extreme sleep apnea is already a valid cause for revocation of an individual’s commercial driver’s license in most (if not all) states. To hold a CDL, one must pass a medical check, which an individual who consistently nods off involuntarily can’t do.

So I guess it’s arguable for the FMCSA to concern itself with this. CDL holders do operate the vehicular equivalent of “weapons of mass destruction,” which can wreak considerable havoc when they crash. Nobody wants to have carnage on the roads.

At the same time, there have to be limits to how far government reaches for safety (or any other) reasons. Trucks are driven by people. People aren’t subject to the same kind of regimentation one may apply to, say, machines such as the trucks they drive. So regulations governing the activities of people, as opposed to machinery, need to take into account individual variances.

The FMCSA’s effort to formalize its policies and restrictions regarding sleep apnea strikes me as an overweening effort to go beyond this limitation.

The fact is that plenty of people function just fine on six hours of sleep a night, even four or five. Others need the full eight hours, some still more. How are you going to differentiate? You see ads for those “sleep number beds”; are drivers going to be tested for “sleep number coefficients,” and barred from work if they have no proof of their individually requisite amount of sleep?

It goes on and on. How about the states that have lately legalized marijuana use? There’s no test for how recently you smoked, so how do you keep those folks off the roads? What about your drivers who used their mandated “rest” time for activities other than sleeping? If they show no signs of impairment, how can you tell? What about the driver who’s just in a bad mood?

This excursion into the vagaries of sleep apnea strikes me as mostly the brainchild of an FMCSA bureaucrat who doesn’t have enough to do. And I’m pretty certain it’s way too far off the beaten path for the courts to uphold it, even if the agency gets ambitious with it. So mostly, I think, it’s a tempest in a teapot; don’t worry about it.

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, 843-559-1277; e-mail, BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.

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