Sleep Apnea Blamed for New York Commuter Line Train Crashes

By Alan Levin | February 7, 2018

Just months after U.S. rail and highway regulators said they were withdrawing plans to screen truckers and railroad engineers for a dangerous sleep disorder, accident investigators blamed it for two New York-area transit crashes.

“It’s unacceptable to me,” Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday at a meeting on the accidents that occurred in 2016 and last year. Sumwalt said he was “extremely disturbed” by the government’s lack of action on sleep apnea.

Both engineers failed to stop trains in stations, slamming into posts where the rail lines ended and flinging cars into where passengers were waiting to board. In the incident in Hoboken, a New Jersey Transit train killed one woman and injured more than 100 people on Sept. 29, 2016. Another on Long Island Rail Road in Brooklyn injured more than 100 on Jan. 4, 2017.

Afterward, both engineers were diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea. OSA causes people to repeatedly stop breathing during sleep, which interrupts rest and can cause daytime drowsiness and significantly heighten risks of accidents. It has been repeatedly linked to accidents and incidents in all modes of transportation, according to the NTSB.

In 2016, under the administration of President Barack Obama, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration took the first step to require better screening for the disorder. However, last year, the agencies withdrew the measure, saying they would address the issue in other unspecified ways.

New Jersey Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, both Democrats, issued statements criticizing the federal government for its change of policy on apnea testing. Menendez called the administration of President Donald Trump “shortsighted and reckless.”

Since the accidents, New Jersey Transit and LIRR, which is operated by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, have adopted stricter screening and testing requirements for OSA among its safety-critical employees, NTSB said.

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