Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the tragic Hoboken crash we now know involved sleep apnea, U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Cory Booker announced new legislation that would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to test train- and commercial-vehicle operators for sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, which had been long ignored until a series of deadly, related accidents.
“In the face of compelling facts that show sleep apnea is a direct cause of several tragic train accidents, the Trump administration has backed off a new mandatory testing rule. This is dangerous and ill-advised. A federal law would force all rail lines—in New York, New Jersey and across the country—to conduct these tests in perpetuity and with clear federal guidelines. Across-the-board sleep apnea testing must be law of the land for train operators and commercial drivers to help ensure us that the tragedies that happened in Brooklyn and in Hoboken will be prevented in the future,” said U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer.
“The findings released by NTSB on the Hoboken and LIRR crashes underscore just how shortsighted and reckless the Trump Administration’s recent decision was to reverse the rule requiring sleep apnea testing and treatment,” said Sen. Booker, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee overseeing America’s rail infrastructure. “We simply cannot stand idly by and wait for the next tragic incident. It’s imperative that we take immediate steps to strengthen rail safety standards, and sleep apnea testing is a common sense safety measure that could prevent crashes and save lives. I’m proud to stand with Sen. Schumer and my colleagues in the House and Senate in introducing legislation to protect operators and commuters from another preventable tragedy by expanding sleep apnea testing and treatment requirements.”
The Senators have repeatedly urged USDOT to reverse course and re-start the rulemaking process that they abandoned earlier this year would have required sleep apnea screening. However given USDOT’s unwillingness to move forward with this important safety requirement, the Senators will now be pushing for legislation that would require them to move forward.
Just last week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed that the two train operators involved in the January 2016 Long Island Rail Road crash in Brooklyn and the September 2016 New Jersey Transit crash in Hoboken suffered from undiagnosed sleep apnea. In 2016, following a long-fought push by Schumer and Booker, the Federal Railroad Administration finally agreed to begin the process for requiring sleep apnea testing for train operators; however, last month the agencies backed out of their commitment. Schumer and Booker today announced that they plan to introduce a new bill that would make sleep apnea testing the law of the land.
According to the NTSB, the engineers of the January 4th Long Island Rail Road crash in Brooklyn and the September 25th New Jersey Transit crash in Hoboken suffered from sleep apnea. On January 4th, a Long Island Rail Road train originating from Far Rockaway derailed at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal, injuring 103 people. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the train was traveling at more than ten miles per hour when it hit a bumping block at the end of the tracks and crashed into a small room, causing the first two cars of the train to derail. The speed limit at this portion of the tracks is only five miles per hour. On September 25th, a New Jersey Transit train originating in Spring Valley, NY derailed at the Hoboken Terminal killing one person and injuring 114 when the train overrode a bumping block at the end of the track and struck the Terminal wall. According to reports, the NTSB found that in both accidents engineers suffered from severe obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. In addition to those two incidents, there are a number of other accidents, including the May 2008 derailment of an MBTA train in Newton, MA that have been at least partially linked to sleep apnea. In fact, nearly 20 percent of the major investigations completed by NTSB between 2001 and 2012 identified fatigue issues as a probable cause.
A rule proposed by the Obama Administration in March 2016 would have expanded sleep apnea testing and treatment requirements for train operators and commercial truck drivers across the nation. Last month, the Trump Administration unexpectedly announced that the rule was withdrawn. From as early as 2001, the NTSB, and Schumer himself, have recommended that rail operators be tested and treated for sleep disorders like sleep apnea following a series of deadly derailments.
In August, Senators Booker, Schumer, Menendez and Gillibrand pressed U.S. DOT Secretary Elaine Chao on DOT’s decision to withdraw the proposed rule to mandate sleep apnea testing on the federal level for rail workers and commercial truck drivers if a symptom is observed. In a letter to Secretary Chao, the senators requested the data DOT used to make the decision to withdraw the rule along with DOT’s plan to identify and treat rail operators and truckers suffering from obstructive sleep apnea.
For more than a decade, the NTSB has recommended that railroads test and treat vehicle operators for sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, which was long ignored until a series of deadly, related accidents. Following a 2013 Metro-North derailment in the Bronx that tragically killed four people, the MTA began developing a pilot project to screen and treat Metro-North engineers for sleep disorders and later expanded the program to the LIRR. Similarly, following a 2008 accident on the T in Boston, the New York City Transit system began screening and treating subway train operators for obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. Finally in 2016, the FRA and FMCSA began to move forward with a rulemaking process that would have paved the way for required sleep apnea testing across the board, however, earlier this year the agencies announced that they plan to withdraw this rulemaking process.
Schumer and Booker’s legislation would require the federal Secretary of Transportation to issue a final rule to provide for the screening, testing and treatment for sleep disorders of individuals operating commercial vehicles, including train operators. Schumer and Booker said that while some agencies like the MTA have committed to sleep apnea testing, that decision only came at the insistence of the Senators and a federal law would force all rail lines to conduct these tests without wiggle room. Moreover, Schumer and Booker explained that a federal rule, like the one they are pushing in Congress, means that rail lines cannot one day decide to stop conducting these screenings.