Federal regulators have announced they are dropping plans that would have required train engineers to undergo screening for sleep apnea. The move comes just more than a year after the two agencies involved—the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, both part of the Department of Transportation—announced they were pushing for mandatory testing of train engineers and truck drivers. The testing was meant to prevent accidents caused by drivers and engineers who suffer from excessive daytime fatigue linked to sleep apnea. Safety experts and politicians have denounced the move, saying millions of lives will be put at risk.
Transportation Agencies to Allow Individual Companies to Voluntarily Test for Sleep Apnea
The Federal Railroad Administration—along with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration—announced in 2016 it was considering regulations that would require mandatory train engineer sleep apnea testing. Sleep apnea is a potentially serious condition in which the sufferer stops breathing repeatedly during sleep. This can lead to extreme daytime fatigue, mental impairment, and other cognitive problems.
Among the train accidents linked to obstructive sleep apnea is the December 1, 2013 crash involving Metro-North Railroad passenger train 8808, which derailed on approach to Spuyten Duyvil Station, in New York City. Four passengers died and another 61 were injured when the train, which was traveling at 82 mph moved through a curved track that had a speed limit of 30 mph. The engineer reported he felt dazed before the train derailed and he was later diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea.
When it first announced the proposed legislation, the Federal Railroad Administration noted that undiagnosed or improperly treated obstructive sleep apnea could cause attention deficits, concentration problems, and memory issues, “thus reducing the capacity to safely respond to hazards when performing safety-sensitive duties.” The agency went on to write that obstructive sleep apnea was a “critical safety issue that can affect operations in all modes of travel in the transportation industry.”
Since President Donald Trump was elected, however, the government’s focus has been on slashing federal regulations in an attempt to stimulate economic growth. As a result, the Federal Railroad Administration announced it would no longer push for testing for sleep apnea among engineers, finding instead that individual railroads can make the decision regarding whether or not to test.
For its part, MTA, the organization responsible for Metro-North, New York City Transit, and Long Island Railroad, has said it is committed to sleep apnea testing and will not stop regularly screening around 20,000 employees.
“[The withdrawal] does absolutely nothing to change the MTA’s commitment to sleep apnea screening and testing,” said MTA spokesperson Shams Tarek. “Safety is the top priority at the MTA and regardless of any federal requirements.”
Critics and Safety Experts Take Issue with the Administration’s Reversal on Engineer Sleep Apnea Testing Requirements
Sarah Feinberg, the former administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, expressed her concern about the regulation’s withdrawal.
“It’s very hard to argue that people aren’t being put at risk,” Feinberg said. “We cannot have someone who is in that condition operating either a train going 70 mph or operating a multi-ton truck traveling down the interstate. It’s just not an appropriate level of risk to be exposing passengers and the traveling public to.”
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it was disappointed in the decision to eliminate the proposed legislation. The NTSB has advocated for testing for railroad engineers, especially after multiple train accidents that were reportedly linked to sleep apnea. The agency noted that obstructive sleep apnea was the probable cause of 10 highway and train accidents it had investigated in the past 17 years and was an issue of concern in multiple ongoing investigations.
Senator Calls for Mandatory Sleep Apnea Screening
In a news conference at the Mineola LIRR station, Senator Charles Schumer spoke out against the Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s withdrawal.
“It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to understand why it is so important to begin the process of requiring sleep apnea testing across-the-board and at the federal level,” Schumer said. “We don’t want train engineers with undiagnosed sleep apnea, who actually hold lives in their hands, to fall asleep at the switch and we don’t want big-rig drivers to doze off at the wheel. That’s why NTSB’s recommendations to get this done should be the law of the land and why I have pushed so hard on this subject for years.”
He further noted that the Department of Transportation’s withdrawal of the proposed rule was uncalled for, and pointed out that it took a series of deadly accidents linked to sleep apnea to get regulators to pay attention to the NTSB’s recommendations in the first place.
Unfortunately, it could take even more deadly train accidents before regulators realize that federal laws are required to ensure the traveling public is safe from train engineers and truck drivers who suffer from sleep apnea.