Business & Tech

Trump administration cancels plan to test truck, bus, and train operators for sleep disorder

While sleep apnea wasn’t always the cause, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that falling asleep at the wheel caused the death of 846 people in traffic crashes in 2014.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
While sleep apnea wasn’t always the cause, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that falling asleep at the wheel caused the death of 846 people in traffic crashes in 2014.

WASHINGTON — Continuing its quest to relieve industries of regulatory burdens, the Trump administration has scrapped a proposal that would have required truck and bus drivers and railroad engineers to be tested for a disorder that could cause them to fall asleep on the job.

The Department of Transportation acknowledged that moderate to severe sleep apnea is ‘‘an ongoing concern . . . because it can cause unintended sleep episodes and resulting deficits in attention, concentration, situational awareness, and memory,’’ putting passengers and other drivers at risk. The agency concluded, however, that existing safety programs are adequate.

Advocates of the testing denounced the DOT decision.

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‘‘We don’t want train engineers with undiagnosed sleep apnea, who actually hold lives in their hands, to fall asleep at the switch, and we don’t want big-rig drivers to doze off at the wheel,’’ Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said Tuesday. ‘‘This abrupt and uncalled for withdrawal by USDOT commemorates a disaster waiting to happen.’’

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Christopher T. O’Neil, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the panel, which has long sought such a rule, was disappointed.

The Obama administration last year proposed to test bus, truck, and rail operators for sleep apnea and treat those found to have the disorder.

‘‘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,’’ O’Neil said. ‘‘The need for this rule-making is well documented in the safety recommendations issued to both the [Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration] and [Federal Railroad Administration], regarding obstructive sleep apnea.’’

DOT officials did not return calls seeking comment.

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The American Trucking Associations, which had lobbied against the rule, released a statement that said its withdrawal ‘‘is an acknowledgment that voluntary tools’’ are sufficient. ‘‘It is important to note that this action by the administration does not prevent carriers from testing for sleep apnea,’’ the statement said.

But Sarah E. Feinberg, FRA administrator during the Obama administration and an advocate of sleep apnea testing, condemned the DOT decision.

‘‘This is a condition that we know has meant unnecessary deaths and injuries. And there is such an easy — and inexpensive — solution,’’ Feinberg said. ‘‘There is no reason to withdraw a rule-making like this other than because you don’t understand the science, or because you’ve chosen to ignore it.’’

More than 25 million Americans are estimated to suffer from undiagnosed sleep apnea. The disorder results in the reduction or cessation of breathing during sleep. In one study, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that for people who suffer from sleep apnea, eight hours of sleep can be less refreshing than four hours of ordinary, uninterrupted sleep.

Pilots already are tested for the disorder, which disrupts normal sleep and contributes to drowsiness during the day.

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Investigators said sleep apnea was to blame for a December 2013 commuter rail crash in New York that killed four people and injured 70. The NTSB determined that Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller had nodded off just before taking a 30 miles per hour curve at 82 m.p.h.

After the crash, Metro-North examined 320 engineers and determined that about 18 percent of them had sleep apnea.

The NTSB suggested sleep apnea can raise the risk of a motor vehicle crash by up to seven times and noted that heavy trucks are involved in nearly one in eight fatal crashes.