ROMERO, Texas (Reuters) - U.S. 54, a two-lane highway that slices through this desolate corner of the Texas Panhandle, is a busy shortcut for commercial trucks hauling loads between the Mexican border near El Paso and points in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas.
The road’s only drawback in these parts is the almost characterless countryside it traverses. As mile after mile goes by, interrupted only by the occasional feedlot, it’s easy to see why drowsy driving is such a problem for commercial vehicle operators.
Throw in the inadequate sleep many drivers experience as a result of their schedules, and it’s clear why fatigue and its many causes — including a condition called sleep apnea — have become a hot topic with health researchers looking to lower the number of fatal crashes of big rigs.
Those accidents have risen nearly 22 percent over the past 30 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as the number of trucks on the road and the miles they log have more than doubled.
But as they focus on the issue, researchers are finding other health problems that haunt long distance drivers and imperil the safety of the motoring public.
Commercial drivers suffer from a number of chronic illnesses at a much higher rate than the general public and are seven times more likely to die on the job than the average worker.
Some of the conditions, including heart disease and diabetes, are no surprise given the sedentary nature and stress of the job. But others are more puzzling.
“Truck drivers die more frequently from prostate cancer, lung cancer, stomach and bladder cancer,” says Toni Alterman, a senior research epidemiologist at National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The excess mortality from these unexpected diseases has prompted the institute to conduct a more comprehensive study comparing truck drivers’ death rates from specific causes to those of the general population. Its findings are years off.
A 1999 bus crash outside New Orleans provided proof of how a chronic disease can turn tragic in an instant.
The operator, who suffered from congestive heart failure, kidney problems and high blood pressure, drifted off the highway after apparently losing consciousness. Twenty-two passengers, all women on a Mother’s Day trip to a casino, died.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board said the driver’s medical conditions, which eluded authorities despite 10 hospitalizations in the two years leading up to the accident, contributed to the crash.
In its aftermath, the NTSB urged the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency charged with overseeing the industry, to come up with tighter standards for the medical exams that bus and truck drivers must pass every two years. It also asked the motor carrier agency to link the health certification more closely with the driver licensing process.
But eight years after the accident, flaws in the certification process remain, according to NTSB.
“It’s painfully slow,” says Paul Schlamm, a NTSB spokesman. “They’re not even doing what we want.”
Spokesman Dwayne DeBruyne defended the motor carrier agency’s record, saying that until August 2005, when Congress finally gave it the authority it needed to proceed, his agency was powerless to do anything.
“I think we’ve been in high gear since then,” he said.
A final rule linking the medical certification to the issuance of commercial driver’s license is expected sometime this year, DeBruyne said. But other key recommendations from the NTSB, including establishing a medical review board and establishing a national registry of medical examiners, remain works in progress.
And as the motor carrier agency plods along, it has run into resistance from the trucking industry.
The American Trucking Association, a key trade group, insists it backs the push for a more comprehensive medical oversight program, it says the FMCSA’s approach has been flawed, particularly its decision to give priority to the push to link health exams with the driver’s license process.
“Doing that first is putting the cart before the horse,” says Dave Osiecki, the ATA’s vice president of safety and security, who said the a training, certification and registration program for examiners should be established first.