Aug. 08–Locals who lived through a deadly Metro-North crash in the Bronx in 2013 are condemning a decision by the Trump administration to back off of a proposed requirement to test railroad engineers and truckers for sleep apnea.
On Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said they are withdrawing proposed rules to require sleep apnea screening for commercial truckers, bus drivers and railroad workers.
The agencies said they will continue to encourage voluntary screening and that existing rules and safety programs are the best way to address the problem.
The regulations were developed in the aftermath of a fatal train crash that killed a Newburgh woman and three others.
At 7:19 a.m. on Dec. 1, 2013, a southbound Metro-North train headed from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan hurtled off the tracks while travelling at 82 mph along a curve near Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx. The speed limit was 30 mph. Four people died, 61 were injured and there was $9 million in damage.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators found that Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller fell asleep due to undiagnosed sleep apnea, exacerbated by a recent schedule change.
One of the four who died was City of Newburgh resident Donna Smith, 54, who was thrown through a train window. She and her younger sister, Linda Smith, were traveling to Lincoln Center.
Linda Smith, who lives in New Windsor, said requiring tests is the best way to find those with sleep apnea. Just encouraging them isn’t adequate, she said.
“It’s definitely not good enough,” Smith said.
Attorney Robert Vilensky represents Eddie Russell of New Windsor, a retired NYPD officer who was heading into the city for a shift as a security guard when the train crashed.
Vilensky said Russell suffered knee and shoulder injuries, has post-traumatic stress syndrome and still sees a psychologist.
He called the withdrawal of the rule “ridiculous” and said it would put lives at risk.
“Imagine having your life flash before your eyes. Imagine the train going sideways. Imagine the water coming at you. Now imagine trying to take the train,” Vilensky said.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North Railroad, started sleep apnea screening and treatment with Metro-North train engineers in 2015 and expanded it to all of its agencies this year, covering nearly 20,000 employees.
An MTA spokeswoman said the rule’s withdrawal won’t change the agency’s commitment to screen employees for sleep apnea and offer priority, specialized treatment.
Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said FMCSA data shows that there’s no proven link between sleep apnea and crashes.
She said fatigue accounts for only 1.8 percent of truck-related crashes and that existing regulations already deal with sleep apnea. She also said that low-end cost estimate for a sleep test is about $624, and the high-end estimate, $7,300.
A second fatal train crash that occurred last year has also been blamed on sleep apnea.
The engineer of the New Jersey Transit train that crashed into Hoboken Terminal in New Jersey in September, killing one person and injuring 110, was later diagnosed with severe sleep apnea, according to his attorney. In October 2016, New Jersey Transit mandated the immediate removal of train engineers and conductors who showed any signs of possible fatigue symptoms until they could show documentation saying the condition was under control. At the time, the agency said it was working on permanent procedures.
The Trump administration has worked to reverse hundreds of Obama-era rules and regulations to ease restrictions on the private sector.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-Cold Spring, said everything possible needs to be done to make trains safer, including testing for medical conditions.
“Ask the families of the people who died at Spuyten Duyvil or Hoboken how much sense this makes. They lost their loved ones because the folks operating those trains had sleep apnea … Getting rid of this rule takes us backwards for no reason, and it’s just plain stupid,” Maloney said.
Smith said testing for sleep apnea is better than dealing with a crash.
“It’s cheaper to test them than to pay out millions in settlements or to explain to a family why their family member was injured or killed because someone fell asleep at the wheel,” Smith said.
(c)2017 The Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y.
Visit The Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y. at www.recordonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.