MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Truckers are more likely than average Americans to be overweight, and that can lead to health problems, among them sleep apnea, which disrupts sleep, causes fatigue and contributes to thousands of crashes a year.
Well, now regulators have announced plans to step up scrutiny of sleep apnea and other health issues in truckers, and that has sparked a fitness craze, or what passes for one, among big-rig drivers.
Frank Morris of member station KCUR has the story.
FRANK MORRIS: The Iron Skillet restaurant here on I-70 east of Kansas City offers pretty typical trucker fare. You can get a salad, but the chicken-fried steak and eggs with gravy at the top of the menu sure looks more appealing.
Outside in the parking lot, it appears few truckers are going hungry.
Mr. JERRY MUMMA (Truck Driver): I'm not bad. I'm 6'4, but I weigh 406 pounds.
MORRIS: Jerry Mumma stands tall in a dirty red polo shirt and overalls.
Mr. MUMMA: Do I need to lose weight? Oh yeah, I need to lose weight. I need to get down to about 260, 280 pounds.
MORRIS: Mumma's got company. Doctors writing federal transportation policy believe that up to 40 percent professional drivers are significantly overweight.
Sitting in his truck, Marty Ellis blames the job.
Mr. MARTY ELLIS (Truck Driver): Oh yeah, yeah. Since I went to work here, I've gained 100 pounds because you're sedentary. This is your job is to sit behind this wheel.
MORRIS: And they sit for 10 or 11 hours a day, weeks at a time many of them, following the work. Ellis says it's hard to arrange a checkup, harder still to park a 70-foot-long truck and trailer at the doctor's office.
Mr. ELLIS: Most of us don't go to the doctor. You know, we just, stay clear of them, and we just keep going. A lot of owner-operators out here don't have insurance.
MORRIS: Truckers do have to get a medical exam every two years at least to qualify for their commercial driver's license. But many have been free to choose doctors who might overlook red flags like obesity, which can trigger sleep apnea.
That can lead to fatigue, which a federal study shows to be a factor in 13 percent of truck crashes. The American Trucking Association says nearly a third of drivers is likely suffer from sleep apnea, but the government has never required truckers to be tested for it. Ellis says they've always dealt with it on their own.
Mr. ELLIS: Before, it really didn't matter. I mean, as long as you could get in and go drive down the road, it didn't matter. And now the regulations are starting to say, well, if you don't do this you may not drive anymore. It's something you really, really have to think about.
Dr. MAGGIE GUNNELS: Our job is really to remove those high-risk operators off the roads. It's safer for them, and it's safer for the American public who travel.
MORRIS: Dr. Maggie Gunnels serves on a panel that's rewriting health regulations for truckers. It published proposed rule changes months ago. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will begin to formalize them soon. It'll start by establishing a registered pool of approved health screeners. Soon to follow: systematic screening for sleep apnea.
Ms. GUNNELS: I would say it's time to invest in your health. Hopefully many of them have started, and there are some great programs out there already for truckers.
Mr. GREG McDERMAND: We actually encourage the guys just to walk around your truck twice every day.
MORRIS: Greg McDermand works for a company that sells mobile sleep apnea treatment machines to truckers.
The fitness industry is adapting, too.
(Soundbite of music)
MORRIS: In this exercise video, Bob Perry works out with heavy chains and a big tire, stuff truckers may have on hand.
Mr. BOB PERRY (President, Roadside Medical Clinics): It's just now reached the tipping point. Every day we're seeing an increase of drivers coming in and saying listen, I need to lose weight.
MORRIS: Perry is the president of Roadside Medical Clinics, a company opening clinics at truck stops. Meantime, an organization called the St. Christopher Fund is taking health screening on the road.
Mr. JON OSBORN: Hi, welcome to the MRV. MRV stands for Medical Resource Vehicle.
MORRIS: Jon Osborn roams the country in this camper loaded with medical diagnostic equipment. A former trucker, Osborn has lost 100 pounds in the last few years. And he's just unpacking something to help him keep it off.
Mr. OSBORN: Truck drivers have limited room in their trucks. So what we're doing is we're now opening up the alloy folding bike, and here she is.
MORRIS: It's just a little red bike, the kind you might expect to see an elderly person riding. It may be kind of stretch to imagine in the macho cap-and-cowboy boot culture of trucking, but it's a step in the direction that more and more truckers will be taking as they try to improve their health before the government steps in.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.