Feds abandon driver fatigue test, put “millions of lives at risk”
Feds drop another transportation safety rule, scrap sleep disorder testing
In the latest slash to federal regulations, many of which concern public safety, federal transportation agencies have dropped efforts to improve detection of sleep apnea, a breathing disorder linked to driver fatigue and deadly train and truck accidents.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) have moved to leave testing to individual transport and rail companies.
New York’s MTA and some private transportation companies made moves in the last year to test their drivers and engineers for sleep apnea, a sleep disorder linked to deadly crashes. Metro North in New York found that more than 11% of their drivers tested had sleep apnea.
What is sleep apnea? Why should drivers and engineers be tested?
Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder that causes the throat muscles to relax and close the wind pipe during sleep. As a result, breathing stops and starts repeatedly during the night, preventing the sufferer from getting restful sleep. As a result, sufferers may experience drowsiness, poor attention, memory, and reaction time, or may even fall asleep during the day with little to no warning. Other side effects include increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke. Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed.
Why is this an important issue for truck drivers and railway engineers? Two reasons. First, truck drivers’ and transit employees’ lifestyles make them more likely to develop sleep apnea. Factors like obesity, smoking, and the sedentary lifestyle associated with long-haul driving and transportation can increase one’s chances of developing the disorder. Men middle age or older are more likely to develop sleep apnea. Second, the side effects of sleep apnea – drowsiness, slowed reaction time, and dozing off unexpectedly – can be especially disastrous for someone behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler or locomotive.
Investigators have identified sleep apnea as a probable cause in at least 10 deadly major transportation accidents in recent years, including the 2013 Metro North crash, and the New Jersey Transit derailment last September.
If left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea can make a driver five times more likely to suffer a major crash.
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