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Wednesday, 09 August 2017 06:02

Trump Threatens Lives by Scrapping Sleep Apnea Testing for Train Drivers

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sleepapneatrainUnder the Trump administration, riding a train could be lethal. (Photo: lOaD sToNe0

When you ride a train, be aware that, due to the Trump administration rolling back a key regulation, that a train may be operated by a drowsy engineer who could fall asleep at the wheel. Unfortunately, this life-threatening action received little coverage, and was largely drowned out by the ongoing Trump farces. The Associated Press reported yesterday:

U.S. officials are abandoning plans to require sleep apnea screening for truck drivers and train engineers, a decision that safety experts say puts millions of lives at risk.

The Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said late last week that they are no longer pursuing the regulation that would require testing for the fatigue-inducing disorder that's been blamed for deadly rail crashes in New York City and New Jersey and several highway crashes.

The agencies argue that it should be up to railroads and trucking companies to decide whether to test employees. One railroad that does test, Metro-North in the New York City suburbs, found that 11.6 percent of its engineers have sleep apnea.

The article noted the real risks of allowing trains to be driven by sleep-deprived drivers:

The National Transportation Safety Board said it was disappointed the agencies decided to scrap the "much-needed rulemaking."

"Obstructive sleep apnea has been in the probable cause of 10 highway and rail accidents investigated by the NTSB in the past 17 years and obstructive sleep apnea is an issue being examined in several, ongoing, NTSB rail and highway investigations," NTSB spokesman Christopher O'Neil said.

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen -- a progressive advocacy group in Washington DC -- stated the threat clearly in a news release:

America would be better off if the Trump administration were asleep at the regulatory switch. Then, at least, lifesaving rules – such as a requirement to ensure truck drivers and train engineers be tested for sleep disorders requiring treatment – would continue forward. Instead, hopped up on extreme doses of deregulating energy drinks, the administration is frenetically rushing to endanger Americans.

Do the revolving-door appointees at the U.S. Department of Transportation really believe that there should be no requirement to test truckers and train engineers for sleep disorders? What basis do they have for ignoring the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board? Is there any reason to consider this anything other than a gift to the trucking and rail industries, to be paid for with the lives of innocent Americans?

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was harshly critical of the reversal of the regulation regarding treating sleep apnea for train engineers and truck drivers. As Newsday reported,

We know from just recent examples that if there had been testing for sleep apnea, there would be people alive, walking the face of the earth today who are not, unfortunately, because the engineer had sleep apnea,” Schumer said

Schumer has also said that sleep apnea is suspected as a contributing factor in January’s LIRR train crash in Brooklyn that injured more than 100 people. The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the accident, has not yet disclosed its findings.

The American Sleep Apnea Association describes the dangerous possible results of sleep apnea:

Sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, have become a significant health issue in the United States. It is estimated that 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, with 80 percent of the cases of moderate and severe obstructive sleep apnea undiagnosed. OSA, which represents the great preponderance of the cases,when left untreated can lead to high blood pressure, chronic heart failure, atrial fibrillation, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems; it is associated with type 2 diabetes and depression; and is a factor in many traffic accidents and accidents with heavy machinery, owing to the persistent drowsiness suffered by many OSA patients before the disease is recognized and treated. [Emphasis added.]

WebMD notes that sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed without a sleep study. It states of the disorder:

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person's breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times. This means the brain -- and the rest of the body -- may not get enough oxygen.

There are two types of sleep apnea:

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): The more common of the two forms of apnea, it is caused by a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses during sleep.

Central sleep apnea: Unlike OSA, the airway is not blocked, but the brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe, due to instability in the respiratory control center.

WebMD also states "untreated sleep apnea may be responsible for poor performance in everyday activities, such as at work and school, motor vehicle crashes [emphasis added], and academic underachievement in children and adolescents."

An editorial in NorthJersey.com on Tuesday warned of the implications of not requiring testing by transportation agencies for sleep apnea: 

In a shortsighted move that places profits over safety, the Trump administration last week withdrew an Obama-era proposal that would require railroad and trucking companies to test employees for obstructive sleep apnea. The move is in keeping with the administration’s apparent obsession of rolling back or canceling any number of proposals associated with the Obama administration, up to and including those involving worker safety and environmental protections.

Given the heavy highway traffic congestion in North Jersey, not to mention the large volume of users of mass transit, this latest Trump rollback is alarming and irresponsible.

You can bet the train and trucking industries lobbied hard to roll back the mandatory sleep apnea tests for employees. This rollback may well cause accidents, fatal and otherwise. As a result, we -- including transportation workers themselves -- are all at greater risk of injury or death when driving or riding a train. Once again, the Trump administration is putting corporate interests before our safety and our lives.