Federal Agencies Decide Against Required Sleep Apnea Testing

Federal Agencies Decide Against Required Sleep Apnea Testing In a recent joint announcement, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) revealed that they are no longer pursuing plans to require sleep apnea screening for train engineers and truck drivers.

Safety experts are concerned that this decision puts millions of lives at risk. Sleep apnea, a fatigue inducing disorder, has been blamed for recent deadly rail crashes in New York City and New Jersey as well as several truck crashes.

The agencies argue that it should be the job of railroads and trucking companies to test their employees if they so decide. In New York City suburbs, the commuter railroad Metro-North does test its engineers for sleep apnea and finds that 11.6% of its engineers have this disorder.

Federal Railroad Administration 2016 Safety Advisory on Sleep Apnea Testing

The FRA issued a safety advisory last year that was intended to act as a stopgap measure. The advisory urged railroads to begin sleep apnea testing while the anticipated federal rules worked through the regulation process. Such a regulation mandating sleep apnea testing would have needed Congressional approval.

In the absence of this regulation, regulators are unable to cite railroads or trucking companies if a train or truck crashes because the operator fell asleep at the controls.

Sleep Apnea Leads to Daytime Drowsiness

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by a person's breathing being interrupted while they sleep. Those with untreated sleep apnea repeatedly stop breathing during their nighttime sleep - sometimes even hundreds of times. This prevents the brain and the rest of the body from getting needed oxygen.

In addition to causing serious health problems including heart failure, stroke, depression and diabetes, untreated sleep apnea can result in poor performance in everyday activities including motor vehicle crashes because of dangerous daytime drowsiness.

There are successful treatments available for this troubling condition. Many individuals benefit from wearing a pressurized breathing mask, called CPAP, during sleep which delivers a continuous flow of air into the nose to keep the airway open. Special dental devices can also keep the airway open during sleep.

The National Transportation Safety Board stated that it was disappointed that the agencies cancelled the "much-needed rulemaking."

Metro-North and another New York railroad established mandatory sleep apnea testing after the condition was blamed for a 2013 accident in which the engineer, who allegedly suffered from severe undiagnosed sleep apnea, fell asleep at the controls. The accident killed 4 and injured 61 passengers. A second accident in 2016 in New Jersey killed a woman when a train slammed into a station. This driver also allegedly suffered from untreated sleep apnea.

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