Sleep Apnea Screening Will Not Be Mandated for Truck Drivers and Train Engineers
By Sean Lally, Staff Writer
Ever since 2011, when two railroad employees were killed in a crash, the National Transportation Board of Safety (NTSB) has been pushing for regulatory measures that might help prevent similar tragedies from occurring. The two employees suffered from a common disorder known as sleep apnea, a condition that causes breathing issues during sleep. Because of the respiratory disruption, those with sleep apnea also tend to experience extreme drowsiness during the day. The NTSB has been a vocal proponent of sleep apnea screening programs that would pinpoint drivers and train operators with this dangerous disorder.
A string of high-profile cases has since followed the 2011 crash. In 2013, a conductor fell asleep at the helm of a speeding train, causing 60 injuries and at least one death. Then in September 2016, a commuter train flew into the Hoboken rail station thanks to an unchecked sleeping disorder. More than 100 were injured and one person met their end. In March, 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) acquiesced to the NTSB’s request and commenced the rule-making process to make sleep apnea screening a reality.
The Trump Administration has put a stop to the rule, publishing a document in early August withdrawing the March 10th proposal. The decision to end the screening effort was a part of the administration’s larger project of gutting regulatory agencies, as indicated by Trump’s “Executive Order on Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda.” The purpose of the order was “to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens placed on the American people.” To meet that objective, the president ordered the creation of a “Regulatory Reform Task Force” for each agency. As per the order, each task force has sought to weed out rules that “impose costs that exceed benefits.”
Under the sway of the president’s mandate, the agencies deemed the proposed apnea screening rule unnecessary, as existing guidelines are sufficient “to address [obstructive sleep apnea].”
The NTSB, who has been a proponent of apnea screenings for some time now, expressed extreme “disappointment” to Bloomberg. According to a statement from Christopher O’Neil, the safety board has determined sleep apnea to be a “probable cause” in “10 highway and rail accidents.” That’s not to mention the fact that, in most cases, sleep apnea wasn’t noticed until after the accident. In short, the NTSB lamented the loss of a “much needed” rule.
Very Common Disorder
As illustrated by researchers in the American Journal of Epidemiology, sleep apnea has become increasingly common, affecting nearly 1 in 10 people in the United States. The danger of this condition is that it is easy to overlook. Those who suffer from sleep apnea might describe their sleeping patterns as normal, indicating that they get a solid eight hours every night and have no trouble staying asleep. However, apnea is primarily a respiratory problem, meaning it affects a person’s ability to receive a sufficient amount of oxygen during the night. So a person might reportedly sleep well and then experience extraordinary drowsiness during the waking hours. Thus, it can often appear as narcolepsy.
For this reason, the administration’s decision to revoke the proposal could prevent transportation companies from adequately addressing this barely-noticeable disorder. This could, in turn, affect the lives of thousands of commuters.
Finally, as observed by Todd Dills – who has done a lot of reporting on the issue – with a comprehensive rule, truckers like William Stewart could save $1,500 in out-of-pocket medical expenses. Additionally, a rule could clear up a lot of confusion surrounding the issue of sleep apnea in the driving profession. Alas, the administration seems unconcerned with these questions and instead wishes to blindly follow its generic hatred of all things regulatory.