No Testing of Truckers for Obstructive Sleep Apnea

  • September 5, 2017
  • Tractor-Trailer Accidents
  • 0 Comments

Two federal agencies—the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)—have withdrawn a rule they put forth in March, 2016, concerning testing for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This action was taken despite the fact that OSA has been demonstrated to cause “unintended sleep episodes and resulting deficits in attention, concentration, situational awareness, and memory, thus reducing the capacity to safely respond to hazards when performing safety-sensitive duties.” The two agencies are on record in calling OSA “a critical safety issue that can affect operations in all modes of travel in the transportation industry.” The agencies proposed testing for moderate to severe OSA among those who held “safety-sensitive positions” on our highways and on the rails.

The FMCSA and FRA withdrew the proposed rule on August 8, 2017, even though they had called OSA “an on-going concern.” The current response from the agencies is that OSA can be adequately handled through existing rules and safety programs.

Why is OSA Significant When It Comes to Safety?

OSA sufferers can awaken dozens of times each night because of breathing problems. Doing so steals their rest, which translates into uncontrollable daytime drowsiness. Treatments shown to remedy the problem include pressurized breathing systems (also known as CPAP systems) and other oral appliances that keep airways open during sleep, so that frequent waking does not occur. Severe cases of OSA often require surgery. OSA can mean that drivers are unsafe on the roads.

Can you see the safety problems involved in getting drowsy while a driver is behind the wheel of a 40-ton tractor trailer traveling at 70 miles per hour, or while an engineer pilots a passenger train through a complex set of urban switches? The NTSB can.

A “Disappointed” NTSB

Dumping the “much-needed rulemaking” was deemed “disappointing” by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Christopher O’Neil, the NTSB’s media relations chief, stated, “Obstructive sleep apnea has been 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.”

The NTSB has been recommending OSA testing for railroad engineers for years. Such testing has been required by the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Roads ever since a 2013 crash in which the engineer, who had fallen asleep while traveling at 82 mph through a 30-mph curve, was shown to have a severe but undiagnosed case of OSA. Also, the engineer of the Hoboken, NJ, train who crashed into that city’s station in September, 2016, killing a woman, was also found to have OSA.

What Happens Now?

According to the FMCSA, those who are concerned about OSA and safety are supposed to use the existing safety rules and programs, as well as the North American Fatigue Management Program. But will that be enough? Some at the NTSB, like Christopher O’Neil, don’t think so. “Medical fitness and fatigue, two of the NTSB’s 10 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements for 2017 – 2018, are tied to obstructive sleep apnea. The need for this rulemaking is well documented.”

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