• Sleep Apnea Rule Scrapped
  • September 20, 2017
  • Sleep apnea is a disorder that affects breathing during sleep and can lead to daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, and memory issues. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found that up to 28 percent of commercial truck drivers suffer from sleep apnea, which is especially alarming considering the high rate of fatal drowsy driving accidents in the industry. Recently, several fatal train accidents, including the New Jersey transit train crash at Hoboken Terminal, have also been attributed to the effects of sleep apnea. However, plans to require sleep apnea screening for truck drivers and train engineers have been scrapped despite warnings from safety experts.

    The National Institutes of Health state that sleep apnea is a condition that often goes undiagnosed, leading to unintended sleep episodes and decreased capacity to safely respond to hazards. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, drowsy driving is the cause of up to 100,000 accidents per year. While encouraging trucking and rail companies to screen employees involved in safety-sensitive work for sleep apnea, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recently withdrew their proposed federal requirement of screening for sleep apnea.

    The agencies suggest that railroads and trucking companies should decide for themselves whether employees should be tested for sleep apnea. The National Transportation Safety Board is disappointed by the decision, noting that sleep apnea has been the likely cause of at least 10 highway and train accidents it investigated over the past 17 years. The Board has recommended sleep apnea testing for years. In a train accident in 2013 in which four people were fatally injured, the engineer had undiagnosed sleep apnea which prompted the proposed sleep apnea testing requirement in March 2016.

    Train engineers are required to undergo vision and hearing tests every three years. The Association of American Railroads reports that railroads are attempting to combat worker fatigue by providing confidential sleep disorder screening and treatment. To prevent fatal train accidents caused by drowsy driving, some railroads, including Amtrak, currently require engineers to undergo sleep apnea testing. One railroad that tests for sleep apnea found that over 11 percent of its engineers have the disorder.

    However, comprehensive medical examinations are not currently federally required. Without such mandated testing, regulators will not be able to cite trucking companies or railroads if an operator fell asleep while driving and caused an accident. The former administrator of the FRA warns that by scrapping this much-needed rulemaking, people are being put at risk of getting in truck and train accidents. The Senate Minority Leader plans to push the agencies to reconsider their withdrawal of the regulation, arguing that the government should not rely on industries to self-regulate. However, a spokesman for the FRA stated that current railroad and FRA safety programs sufficiently address the risk of sleep apnea.

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