In a move that has been highly criticized by trucking safety advocates and experts alike, U.S. officials have announced they are dropping plans to require truck drivers and train engineers to undergo testing for sleep apnea. Both the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)—which are part of the U.S. Department of Transportation—have said they will allow trucking companies and railroads to determine individually whether they will conduct sleep apnea testing. The move could put millions of lives at risk, as motorists are forced to share the road with truck drivers who could have undiagnosed sleep apnea.
Department of Transportation Agencies Pull Proposed Rule Regarding Sleep Apnea
The proposed sleep apnea testing rule was published in March 2016 and would have required both truck drivers and train operators to undergo testing for a condition known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a sleep disorder that can have serious health consequences. People with OSA experience repeated incidents in which they stop and start breathing while asleep.
Daytime symptoms of OSA include waking up tired, daytime fatigue or tiredness, issues with memory, and intellectual impairment, all of which are concerning when the sufferer is in control of large vehicles.
When they wrote the proposed rule, both the FRA and FMCSA administrations wrote that undiagnosed or inadequately treated obstructive sleep apnea “can 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 agencies went on to note that the condition “is a critical safety issue that can affect operations in all modes of travel in the transportation industry.”
Rather than pulling back on their concerns about sleep apnea, however, the administrations have determined that it should be up to trucking companies and railroads to decide whether employees will be tested, rather than up to the federal government to require it.
Trump Administration Pushed to Remove Testing
The Department of Transportation’s move to pull required truck driver sleep apnea testing is the result of the Trump administration’s policy of eliminating rules and regulations that are seen to inhibit economic growth. The U.S. government has been focused on cutting federal regulations either by withdrawing or delaying them in an attempt to boost the economy.
In withdrawing the proposed rule, the agencies noted that although obstructive sleep apnea remains an on-going concern, they believe current safety programs are sufficient to address the issue. But people who have lost loved ones in accidents linked to sleep disorders might argue that the fact such accidents happen at all, is proof current safety programs do not do enough.
Safety Advocates Criticize Removal Required Truck Driver Sleep Apnea Testing Rule
In response to the pulling of the proposed rule, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)—an agency that advocated for the testing, said it is disappointed by the change.
“Obstructive 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,” said Christopher O’Neil, a spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board. “The need for this rulemaking is well documented in the safety recommendations issued to both the [Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration] and [the Federal Railroad Administration], regarding obstructive sleep apnea.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer condemned the U.S. Department of Transportation for the move and demanded the agencies reverse the withdrawal, noting that lives would be put at risk by scrapping the testing for sleep apnea.
“It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to understand why it is so important to begin the process of requiring sleep apnea testing across-the-board and at the federal level,” Schumer said.
Fatigue-Related Accidents are Preventable, Experts Argue
Safety experts argue that fatigue-related truck crashes are highly preventable, and deaths resulting from such crashes are unnecessary. This includes accidents such as the tractor-trailer crash in Jackson Tennessee, on July 26, 2000, in which the driver of the semi-truck, who suffered from sleep apnea but did not share the diagnosis on his medical certification, collided with a Tennessee Highway Patrol vehicle, killing a state trooper. That accident was cited by the agencies when they issued their notice of the proposed rule in 2016.
Statistics from a study published in 2016 in the journal Sleep suggest that truck drivers who do not have proper treatment for sleep apnea have a rate of preventable crashes five times higher than colleagues who do not have sleep apnea. Truck drivers who have properly treated sleep apnea have a rate of crashes equivalent to the group without the sleep disorder. Stefanos Kales, one of the study’s authors, noted that up to 20 percent of all large truck crashes are linked to driving tired, and obstructive sleep apnea is the most common cause of daytime drowsiness.
Given the risk of accidents linked to sleep disorders and excessive drowsiness, safety advocates have called on the Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to explain their decision. They continue to speak out against the withdrawal.
“Certainly there are regulations that may have outlived their usefulness but this is not one of them,” Schumer said, blasting the agencies for their decision. “We know from recent examples that if there had been testing for sleep apnea there would be people alive walking the face of the earth today who are unfortunately not because the engineer had sleep apnea.”