The Trump administration’s recent decision to pull a proposal to screen all truck, train and bus operators for sleep apnea puts safety on the shelf and this will make our highways much less safe. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) dropped an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking issued in March 2016, which would have created new national requirements for testing and treating obstructive sleep apnea for rail workers and commercial vehicle drivers. At the time, the agencies were following through on a recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
President Trump, who claims to be for working men and women, has been hard at work with regulatory rollbacks that are very pro-big-business and very much anti-people. Hopefully, the things his Administration is doing will be exposed. But so far the rollback of safety regulations has been under the radar.
Current federal regulation says a person is “physically qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle if that person has no established medical history or clinical diagnosis of a respiratory dysfunction likely to interfere with his or her ability to control and drive a commercial motor vehicle safely.” FMCSA regulations were amended in late 2015 to provide for a new medical examination report form in annual physicals to more deeply probe drivers’ medical histories. The new form specifically includes questions on sleep apnea and sleep disorders; however, critics note that doctors are already supposed to screen drivers for any respiratory dysfunctions and make recommendations to see specialists if needed.
Federal safety officials, including the National Transportation Safety Board, have expressed disappointment in the administration’s decision to pull the early rulemaking for obstructive sleep apnea testing. The NTSB explained that obstructive sleep apnea has been a probable cause of 10 highway and rail accidents investigated by the NTSB in the past 17 years, and that obstructive sleep apnea is an issue being examined in several ongoing NTSB rail and highway investigations.
For example, federal investigators determined that an engineer for New York’s Metro-North commuter rail line went to sleep while operating a train that went off the tracks in December 2013 while traveling 82 miles per hour around a curve with a speed limit of 30 miles per hour. Four people were killed and more than 60 others were injured in that accident. The NTSB said it was likely caused by factors that included Metro-North Railroad’s failure to properly investigate accidents in order to prevent future incidents, as well as its organizational structure and lack of efficient safety identification protocols.
The NTSB said the engineer had fallen asleep due to undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea exacerbated by a recent circadian rhythm shift required by his work schedule. Christopher O’Neil, an NTSB spokesman, said in a statement last week:
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 in the safety recommendations issued to both the FMCSA and FRA regarding obstructive sleep apnea.
The American people deserve to be protected from truck drivers who suffer from fatigue or medical unfitness. Instead of tearing down safety regulations, we should be making them stronger.
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