FOR anyone who has to take public transport buses or has to share the road with such buses, the recent revelation by the health minister that 44.3 per cent of 289 bus drivers studied in a road safety survey suffered from obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is a frightening and very real threat to the safety of bus passengers and road users. Although not caused by the job, OSA affects the quality of a person's sleep; so, how well or how badly bus drivers with OSA sleep will affect their alertness during their waking hours, when they are at work driving buses. Yet, the survey had not taken into account other sleep disorders like narcolepsy, where sufferers suddenly fall asleep without warning. Why that was considered unnecessary is worrying; all Malaysians would surely like to know what percentage of bus drivers are likely to suddenly switch off while at the wheel.
That the Health Ministry is setting guidelines for commercial vehicle drivers incorporating these findings is a good thing. Drivers who suffer from sleep disorders are required to consult a sleep specialist and to get treated. Until they get clearance from a specialist, they cannot drive. They will then be required to an undergo annual assessment. In addition, the Land Public Transport Commission will set up a database of drivers, which will include their medical condition. A suggestion has been made that bus operators should introduce new pre-employment procedures which include health matters.
Although all this is good in theory, whether it will translate smoothly into practice is another thing. Identifying drivers with sleep disorders, and then sending them to specialists, is unlikely to be a cost that public transport companies would willingly expend, given that most already claim to be operating at a loss. But if the government is serious about public transport safety, such conditions should be set in law, and it should not be limited to sleep disorders. Proper studies on health issues that affect commercial vehicle drivers and the prevalence of these conditions must be conducted, and procedures to weed out these problems instituted and strictly enforced. Because bus drivers hold the lives of their passengers in their hands, the job of a bus driver is very important, and the responsibilities are great. Due respect must therefore be given to their health.