Traveling by car, particularly in a crowded metropolitan area like New York City, comes with its share of hazards. The Association of Safe International Road Travel estimates that over 37,000 U.S. residents die in traffic accidents every year. But, as recent headlines have shown, traveling by train doesn’t necessarily offer more peace of mind. In many cases, a lack of safety systems may allow for engineer errors that result in tragedy. In fact, the National Train Safety Board recently found that two commuter train crashes in the New York City area were attributed to engineers who had undiagnosed sleep apnea.
As one of the most common sleep disorders in the nation, sleep apnea affects as many as 18 million Americans. Unfortunately, this disorder often goes undiagnosed due to its hard-to-recognize symptoms. It carries a number of serious, long-term risks for the sufferer, including diabetes, stroke, and heart attacks. But when those entrusted with the operation of heavy equipment or transportation suffer from sleep apnea, the short-term risks — extreme fatigue and daytime drowsiness — have the power to impact everyone in the general proximity.
That’s exactly what happened when a New Jersey Transit train crashed in a Hoboken terminal in September 2016 and a Long Island Rail Road commuter train crashed at the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn in January 2017. The New Jersey accident injured 110 and killed one person, while 108 people were injured in the Brooklyn accident. In both cases, the trains were traveling well above the speed limit and overran the terminal’s tracks. And in both cases, the accidents caused millions of dollars’ worth of property damage.
These aren’t isolated incidents, either. A 2014 train crash in New York City that killed four people was also the result of an undiagnosed sleep disorder, according to the National Train Safety Board. For years, the organization has stressed the need for stricter sleep apnea screening procedures for operators. While the Metropolitan Transit Authority — the much-loathed parent authority of the LIRR — maintains that they already have an “aggressive sleep apnea screening and treatment program for all train and bus operators and locomotive engineers,” NTSB is not convinced it’s enough. In the case of the 2017 incident, sleep apnea screenings had been planned for but had not been implemented at the time of the crash; the engineer involved had not been screened prior to the crash but was later diagnosed with severe sleep apnea and was prescribed treatment.
As the NTSB report notes, even without the sleep apnea screening in place, the accidents could have been prevented had the proper technology been implemented. The system known as positive train control, which prevents derailments and crashes through automatic braking when speeds are deemed excessive, could have done its job in these cases. But both New Jersey Transit and the LIRR received waivers to exclude them from installing this system due to the difficulties associated with in-terminal installation. The Federal Railroad Administration has ordered railroads to install this technology and have it up-and-running by the end of 2018, but these terminals will not be forced to do so unless the NTSB’s recommendation results in action.
There is currently no federal mandate to screen truck drivers and railroad engineers for sleep apnea, but the Obama administration had taken such a mandate under consideration. However, the Trump administration withdrew the proposed federal regulation back in August, leaving individual railroads to decide for themselves. The NTSB has called the decision “mystifying,” adding that it “jeopardizes public safety.”
“The traveling public deserves alert operators,” said NTSB chairman Robert L. Sumwalt in a statement. “That’s not too much to ask.”