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Undiagnosed sleep apnea played a role in train accidents

The National Transportation Safety Board investigates train accidents and then issues findings and recommendations. A common issue uncovered in two somewhat recent crashes (a January 2017 Long Island Rail Road crash and September 2016 New Jersey Transit crash) was undiagnosed sleep apnea.

Each of the engineers had no memory of the crash. The NJ Transit engineer remembered looking at his watch and checking the speedometer and the next thing was a “loud bang.” Similarly, the LIRR engineer remembered approaching the terminal and then being thrown from his seat. They each suffered from undiagnosed sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?

More people have become aware of the chronic condition that can disrupt sleep. It is more common in overweight individuals, but it can affect anyone. Because it occurs during sleep it is difficult to diagnose unless a family member notices signs.

The most common type occurs when the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep. Breathing stops for seconds to minutes. Normal breathing often starts with a choking sound or snort. These interruptions can happen up to 30 times an hour and limit the amount of deep sleep.

How often has it been a cited cause?

Related drowsiness during the day can be especially dangerous for those employed in the transportation industry. Over the past 17 years, the NTSB has pointed to sleep apnea as a probable cause in 10 rail and highway accidents. An undiagnosed case was behind a 2013 commuter train crash in New York that killed four people.

Since 1996, LIRR has recorded 17 accidents where trains hit terminal bumpers, similar to the January 2017 accident. In one of these, the engineer had fallen asleep. “Unknown human factor” was the listed cause on a list given to the NTSB on four of the other incidents.

Train accidents are relatively rare. Extrapolate these results to truck accidents and other motor vehicle accidents on New York highways and undiagnosed sleep apnea could be a more common cause than previously realized. When the cause of an accident is unclear, it is worth consideration.

Why aren’t railroads and trucking companies testing for it?

These recent findings have sparked debate. Should testing be government mandated or left to the discretion of companies? The current administration has indicated its preference for leaving the decision in the hands of railroads and trucking companies. Senator Chuck Shumer disagrees and supports government-mandated screenings. The former Federal Railroad Administrator issued a safety advisory at the end of last year urging railroads to test for sleep apnea.

In August, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration withdrew a proposed rule that would have required testing for undiagnosed or inadequately treated obstructive sleep apnea. But some railroads are already testing employees. The Metro-North line serving the New York suburbs is one and it has found that almost 12 percent of its engineers have sleep apnea. Once diagnosed, proper treatment can reduce the risk of accidents.

If you or a loved one suffers a serious injury in a truck or train crash, find out if undiagnosed sleep apnea might have been a cause. Consult a NYC personal injury attorney to learn your rights and obtain maximum compensation.

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