Nixing sleep apnea testing likely to cause deaths

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The scene after the train accident in Hoboken, N.J.

Your daily commute just became more dangerous, thanks to President Trump.

In his zeal to kill off unnecessary federal regulations, he has ordered cancellation of a plan to require mandatory sleep apnea testing for truck drivers and railroad engineers.

The Federal Railroad Administration, and its sister agency covering truckers, both said they still recommended such testing but would not require it.  Why?  Perhaps it is the Trump administration’s campaign promise to cut two regulations for each new one imposed.

I’m all for “draining the swamp,” but this exercise in cutting red tape is likely to cause deaths.

It wasn’t until December of 2013 that anyone in railroading had given serious thought to sleep apnea.  Because that’s when Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller ran his train into a 30 mph curve at 82 mph at Spuyten Duyvil, sending the cars off the tracks and leaving four passengers dead.

Initially Rockefeller said his brakes had failed.  Then he said he’d been “sort of dazed, mesmerized,” comparing it to highway hypnosis.  When he realized what was happening it was too late.  His emergency brake application, coupled with the momentum of the huge locomotive pushing, not pulling, the train, made derailment inevitable.

Rockefeller was a 15-year veteran of Metro-North, ten years as an engineer.  But he’d also been changing his work shift. On the morning of the accident Rockefeller had left his home at 3:30 am to get to work, having gone to bed at 8:30 p.m. the night before, after a nine hour work shift.

But not only was he tired, he was also overweight and, as subsequent testing showed, suffered from undiagnosed sleep apnea.  Federal investigators said his medical condition meant he was an accident waiting to happen, and criticized Metro-North for not testing its employees.  Shortly after, the FRA proposed mandatory testing and Metro-North complied.

By the way… Rockefeller is now on a $3,200 a month lifetime disability pension because of his sleep apnea but is suing Metro-North for $10 million claiming it was responsible for allowing him to speed.

In 2016 there was another railroad crash, this time in Hoboken N.J., when an engineer “spaced out” coming into the station causing a collision that took one life and left 14 injured.  Investigators think the engineer may also have had sleep apnea.

By the way… neither train had Positive Train Control which might have prevented speeding that caused the accident.  That technology is still many months away thanks to foot dragging by the railroads.

Sleep apnea may affect 5-20 percent of the population, with obesity being a contributing factor.  And in sedentary jobs like truck driving and railroad engineering, obesity is a big problem.

So why not test for it?  We test airline pilots’ vision and health, including potential sleep apnea.  So should we also test railroad engineers and truck drivers.  Our lives are in their hands and we have a right to know they’re not drunk, blind or falling asleep at the wheel.

An average Metro-North train at rush hour can carry 1,000 passengers, the equivalent of two fully-loaded 747’s.  Don’t we have a right to know that the engineer is in good health?  Not according to the Trump administration, which sees such mandatory medical testing an unnecessary burden on business.

Metro-North says its testing has found that 18 percent of its 320 engineers they tested suffer from sleep apnea.  And, to its credit, the railroad says it will continue testing all crew members, even without the FRA requiring it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.

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