Sleep Apnea Screening Could Prevent Transportation Accidents

Disturbing patterns of sleep deprivation and its impact on transportation workers are emerging in recent news headlines.

Two New York-area commuter rail crashes which occurred in 2016 and early 2017 were caused by fatigued engineers who suffered from an undiagnosed form of severe sleep apnea, federal safety officials recently disclosed at the close of their investigations.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) emphasized a lack of adequate screening for the sleep disorder as the probable cause for the two serious wrecks: one late-September crash at a Hoboken, New Jersey Commuter Terminal, killing one and injuring 110; and the January 2017 Long Island Railroad train crash at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal, which injured more than 100 people. The NTSB reaffirmed its ongoing call for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to make sleep apnea testing mandatory.

If both railroads had effectual sleep apnea testing programs, the NTSB report said, “it would have been unlikely that these employees would have been operating trains with undiagnosed and untreated obstructive sleep apnea.”

After embracing such programs during the Obama Administration, the FRA last August turned its back on programs that would have required railroad engineers to be tested for sleep apnea, which has been irrefutably proven to cause people to fall asleep on the job. Advocates of the testing, including the NTSB and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), denounced the decision, citing President Trump’s effort to aggressively reduce regulations at all levels of federal government.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) continues to urge the Trump Administration to reverse its decision and recommends that both FRA and FMCSA take alternative steps to improve sleep apnea screening of at least engineers and over-the-road truck drivers. NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said in a statement accompanying their investigation of the two train accidents, “The traveling public deserves alert operators. It is not too much to ask.”

It is estimated that more than 25 million Americans suffer from undiagnosed sleep apnea. The condition results in the reduction or cessation of breathing during sleep and disturbs restful sleep, which in turn contributes to fatigue in people during waking and what should be productive work hours. The NTSB says sleep apnea has been the probable cause of at least 10 highway and rail crashes in the past 17 years. Privately, many NTSB investigators say that number is an “extremely low estimate.”

FRA has been aware of sleep apnea’s dangers on railroads since at least 2004. That’s when it issued a safety advisory about sleep disorders. But that didn’t stop the FRA from marching in lockstep with the president’s mandate to eliminate as many federal regulations as possible without considering their impact on our safety.

NJTransit had a sleep apnea screening program on the day of the Hoboken crash. But the engineer’s most recent apnea screening was from 2013. And even though he displayed some of the symptoms of sleep apnea at the time, he wasn’t referred for a sleep study, according to the NTSB’s crash report. This suggests modification in some areas of the NJTransit’s sleep apnea screenings might be in order.

Since the Brooklyn crash, NYC’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA, of which the Long Island Railroad is a part) has embraced its screening program. Nearly 10,000 MTA employees have been screened, over 2,000 referred for sleep studies, and about 1,185 being treated for sleep apnea, according to an MTA spokesman.

If you’ve been injured by a train or large truck wreck, it’s possible that sleep apnea may be the cause.  We at Kaplan Lawyers PC are available to answer your legal questions arising from these accidents and will thoroughly investigate the matter. Fill out our contact form or call 516-399-2364 to arrange a free case evaluation.