Can I Drive a Truck With Sleep Apnea?

truck driver driving a truck with sleep apnea

Being diagnosed with sleep apnea doesn’t mean you can no longer legally drive a truck.

However, your condition needs to be treated and you need to pass a medical exam to be medically qualified to drive.

We all know by now that fatigue is a major cause of road accidents. This makes sleep apnea risky, because you could have it and not even know it. One of the interesting things about sleep apnea is that it’s extremely difficult to self-diagnose.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep Apnea is a condition where, during sleep, a narrowing or closure of the upper airway causes repeated sleep disturbances leading to poor sleep quality and excessive daytime sleepiness.

Since excessive sleepiness can be a consequence of sleeping disturbances, drivers with sleep apnea have compromised driving performance leading to increases in the risks of crashes.

Why is it so hard to self-diagnose?

For one, you don’t fully wake up in the night to remember, but also, studies have found that a driver self-reporting they are sleepy in the day is not a reliable predictor of whether they have sleep apnea. But almost every objective test shows a clear relationship between performance and the severity of sleep apnea.

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

There’s several things sleep specialists look for to determine whether to test for sleep apnea: daytime sleepiness, fatigue, being overweight (is that politically incorrect? If so, make that “heavy-set”) snoring and family history. I didn’t seem to have any of the indicators except family history (my Father) and snoring.

But that may not be quite true. When I left home in the early 1980’s I was fortunate to find a job about 30 miles from my Grandfather who lived in a tiny Oklahoma town. Born in the late 1890’s, he worked as a farmer, pipe fitter and his last job was as the man who took care of an oil lease of multiple oil wells. This was not a white collar job. He checked every pump every day, climbed the metal stairs to every tank to measure the daily output and he had a pipe threader on his pickup’s back bumper that he seemed to use every third day I was with him. He worked till he was 80 years old.

Suffice it to say, he didn’t meet the criteria for sleep apnea, but his snoring kept the livestock agitated the next farm over at night.

surprised man with cpap machine
A CPAP isn’t as bad as you’d expect

And so when my immediate family started getting noise complaints from the neighbors and worse, I started getting complaints from the wife, due to my snoring, I got checked for sleep apnea. This involves going to an office, being hooked up to about 30 wires and then going to sleep. In my case, they determined pretty quickly that I had severe sleep apnea and they brought in a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP) and back to sleep I went. The machine keeps your airway open so that you’re not waking up 45 times an hour (even if you don’t consciously remember waking up).

After all the results were in, I obtained a CPAP for home. It is quiet, doesn’t bother me at night, the snoring is gone and I have a lot more energy in the day. 

Tips for self-diagnosis

As a commercial driver, if you:

  • find yourself extremely sleepy in the day
  • have been told you drown out the reefer in the next space with your snoring
  • wake up gasping for breath or with a choking sound
  • seem unduly fatigued

You might want to get checked for sleep apnea and takes the steps to ensure that when you can sleep, you do sleep.

There is a self assessment test here that might be useful.

I heard the DOT introduced new CDL sleep apnea rules?

There has been a lot of talk in the industry about sleep apnea, with good reason because it’s a safety risk and affects the health of many hard working truckers.

While new laws were planned in 2018, so far there have been no changes to the DOT requirements for medical exams. There is no requirement for a specific test for sleep apnea in truck drivers.

However, to hold your CDL license you need to pass a medical exam. It’s up to the medical examiner to decide if your medical conditions present a risk to your ability to drive a truck.

Drivers diagnosed with severe moderate sleep apnea may be deemed unfit to drive. Once they have been treated for the condition and deemed safe again they can get their CDL.

The key thing is, if you have sleep apnea, it must be managed. Once it is managed (e.g. using a CPAP machine) and not affecting your alertness and ability to concentrate on the road, you’ll be good to go again.

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