It’s now official: The train engineer from last year’s deadly train derailment was found to have severe obstructive sleep apnea, where he stopped breathing 65 times per hour. To date, there’s no conclusive proof that the crash was a direct result of his untreated sleep apnea, since he was also taking a sedating antihistamine and had changed shift hours two weeks prior. However, federal transportation officials are convinced that driver fatigue may have played a role in crash that killed four and injured 70 people.
In an article about this incident, a transportation union official was quoted as saying the crash was a “tragic accident,” and that “there isn’t enough awareness of sleep apnea within the transportation industry.” This is an interesting comment, in light of the fact that recently, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), American Trucking Association (ATA), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and even Congress have worked tirelessly to bring more awareness about sleep apnea to the public.
Congress just passed a law (H.R. 3095) requiring investigation, data collection and gathering expert opinion into screening requirements for sleep apnea in various transportation industries. The FAA recently announced that they will be more vigilant about screening for OSA, especially in severely overweight pilots. In this press release, the FAA noted that there are almost 5000 pilots with OSA on treatment that have been issued special issuance certificates. Interestingly, the NTSB database reports 34 accidents, 32 of which were fatal, involving people who had sleep apnea and 294 incidents involving another type of sleep disorder.
Around 170,000 individuals are injured in trucking accidents each year. About 5,000 semi-trucks per year are involved in fatal traffic accidents in the United States. In a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and sponsored by the FMCSA and the American Trucking Association, almost one-third (28%) of commercial truck drivers were found to have OSA.
Given that the incidence of obstructive sleep apnea is so high in these industries, perhaps there should be universal screening. What do you think? Is it invading privacy to force mandatory sleep apnea testing, or does public safety take priority over individual rights?