Safety Advocates Push for Drivers to Receive Sleep Apnea Testing

Last December, one of New York City’s MTA trains was going three times as fast as normal and, when taking a turn too quickly, slipped off the rails, ultimately killing four people and injuring 63 others. Subsequent investigations discovered that the train’s conductor had undiagnosed sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a disorder where the windpipe to constrict during sleep. This causes people to wake up for brief amounts, preventing true deep sleep and leading to daytime issues of drowsiness. Over time, sleep apnea can lead to more serious health issues including high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.

An estimated 4% of men, and 2% of women — amounting to about 22 million Americans — have sleep apnea, and the majority of sufferers are undiagnosed. Treatment typically consists of surgery, or using a CPAP device that regulates sleep-time breathing.

This is not the first or last deadly accident for which sleep apnea has served as a potential trigger, and these accidents are beginning to beg the question: should sleep apnea tests be required for transportation operators?

Critics who have observed sleep apnea’s complicity in accidents are saying that nationwide rules about testing need to be implemented, and the sooner the better. On the other hand, there are people who disagree — such as Todd Spencer, who works for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. He says that the sleep apnea theory is “junk science,” and he worries that the cost of testing — at an estimated $2,600 per driver — could be prohibitively expensive for companies.

The Department of Transportation, for its part, is continuing to explore the possibilities. One of their agencies, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, has initiated research that could, in the future, result in sleep apnea regulation. “We have accidents in rail, commercial trucking, commercial aviation, marine, pretty much every mode of transportation,” said Mark Rosekind, a National Transportation Safety Board member who agrees that better mandates for testing are necessary.

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