Is a Study of Trucker Health Really Government Waste?

December 4, 2015 | 12:38 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

Oklahoma Senator James Lankford earlier this week published a long report called “Federal Fumbles” detailing projects that he considers government waste. Corny football analogies aside, some of the projects described in the report do indeed seem excessive at first glance.

Unfortunately, the senator criticized a number of research grants without even bothering to contact the primary investigators involved in the studies. Let’s take a $2.6 million, 4-year study that tracks efforts to stem trucker obesity (page 17) run by Dr. Ryan Olson at Oregon Health & Sciences University.

Food at truck stops can be downright tasty. It's also generally not that good for you. The trucker lifestyle makes healthy eating difficult, and scientists are studying what kinds of interventions are most effective at encouraging a healthier lifestyle. Photo: Flickr user auvet

Food at truck stops can be downright tasty. It’s also generally not that good for you. The trucker lifestyle makes healthy eating difficult, and scientists are studying what kinds of interventions are most effective at encouraging a healthier lifestyle. Photo: Flickr user auvet

“I was not aware of my project being profiled,” replied Dr. Olson when I wrote to ask him about the study. This calls into question whether the senator and his staff are truly interested in understanding the value of the research or are just trying to score political points.

In his report, the senator suggests that the best way to encourage people to make healthy living decisions is just for people to be supported by doctors, family, and friends.

Well, that doesn’t seem to be working. Truck driving is among the professions with the highest prevalence of obesity. A NIOSH study published in 2014 found that with a 69 percent obesity rate, long-haul truckers are twice as likely to be obese as the adult working population. Another study found that 86 percent of U.S. truck drivers are either overweight or obese.

This has consequences, and not just for the drivers themselves. Obese truckers are more likely to have accidents, and therefore injure other motorists. Among new recruits, severely obese drivers were 43% to 55% more likely to crash than were drivers with a normal Body Mass Index during their first two years on the road. This could be due to limited agility, sleep apnea, or other fatigue associated with obesity.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 3,921 people killed and 104,000 people injured in crashes involving large trucks in 2012. Large trucks accounted for eight percent of all vehicles involved in fatal crashes, but were much less likely to have elevated blood alcohol levels or a bad driving record. Driver fatigue, however, can be a significant factor.

In the United States, costs for chronic conditions related to obesity are expected to reach $4.2 trillion annually by 2023. Specifically for trucking, overweight and obese truckers and truck drivers accrue significantly higher annual health care costs ($383 and $591, respectively).

Truckers at a truck stop in Arizona

Trucking companies and organizations that represent truck drivers are investing in initiatives to reduce obesity among drivers. Research can help determine what kinds of programs are most effective. Photo: Flick user lwr

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are 1.7 million truck drivers in the USA. The American Trucking Association’s estimate is closer to three million.

Using the most conservative numbers, reducing obesity among truck drivers could save the health system hundreds of millions of dollars every year and prevent hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries from vehicle crashes.

The yearly investment in the study was $650,000.

Senator Lankford also argues that “private funding of research studies is a better avenue.” But where exactly is that private funding going to come from? Pharmaceutical companies? They have exactly the opposite incentive: keep people on long term maintenance drugs. It’s a fact that government funds essential research that helps improve our health and safety that would stand little chance of private funding.

Fortunately for truck drivers and the public they serve, government-funded researchers are learning more about what kinds of interventions are effective. And the trucking industry, aiming to keep truck drivers healthy and happy and its medical costs down, is embracing attempts to slim down its workforce.

For many years, former Senator Coburn criticized individual research grants without bothering to contact the scientists involved to learn more about their work. It’s unfortunate to see Senator Lankford make the same mistake.