Democrats' bill requires sleep apnea testing for engineers

Markets Associated Press

Democratic lawmakers from New York and New Jersey are introducing legislation Thursday to force federal transportation officials to implement a rule to test train engineers for sleep apnea.

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Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker announced the legislation a week after the National Transportation Safety Board said that the engineers involved in crashes in Hoboken and Brooklyn were suffering from undiagnosed sleep apnea.

It also comes ahead of Friday's anniversary of a crash in Hoboken when a New Jersey Transit train slammed into Hoboken Terminal, killing a woman standing on a platform and injuring about 110 passengers and crew.

The legislation would force the Department of Transportation to implement a proposed rule to require the test, overturning President Donald Trump's decision last month to allow individual railroads to decide whether to conduct the test.

"The recent 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," Booker said in a statement. "We simply cannot stand idly by and wait for the next tragic incident."

The Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said last month that they are no longer pursuing the regulation that would require testing for the fatigue-inducing disorder.

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The agencies argue that it should be up to railroads and trucking companies to decide whether to test employees. One railroad that does test, Metro-North in the New York City suburbs, found that 11.6 percent of its engineers have sleep apnea.

The NTSB has cited sleep apnea in the probable cause of 10 highway and rail accidents in the past 17 years, including an undiagnosed case in the engineer of a Metro-North Railroad commuter train that sped into a 30 mph curve at 82 mph and crashed in New York in 2013, killing four people.

The Hoboken and Brooklyn engineers had the sleep apnea risk factor of being morbidly obese but weren't diagnosed with the disorder until after the crashes, NTSB documents show. NJ Transit had a screening program at the time of the Hoboken crash. The LIRR's started after the Brooklyn crash. Both engineers are being treated with pressurized breathing masks.

The decision to kill the sleep apnea regulation is the latest step in Trump's campaign to drastically slash federal regulations. The Trump administration has withdrawn or delayed hundreds of proposed regulations since he took office in January — moves the Republican president has said will help bolster economic growth.

Late last year, the FRA issued a safety advisory that was meant as a stopgap measure urging railroads to begin sleep apnea testing while the rules made their way through the regulatory process. Without a regulation mandating testing, which would have needed approval from Congress, regulators couldn't cite trucking companies or railroads if a truck or train crashed because the operator fell asleep at the helm.