Metropolitan Transit Authority officials will meet this week to decide on a new program that would screen all bus, train, and subway operators for sleep apnea. The testing would cost the MTA an estimated $7.5 million over the next five years to administer tests to its nearly 20,000 drivers, conductors, and engineers, but in light of recent accidents, the idea is likely to receive widespread approval.
Three major incidents on New York City’s public transit lines within the past three years have all been linked to driver drowsiness: a Long Island Rail Road train that derailed in Atlantic Terminal on January 4; a New Jersey Transit train that crashed into Hoboken Terminal last fall; and a Metro-North train that derailed in the Bronx three years ago, killing four passengers. Both of the drivers in the latter two incidents were later diagnosed with sleep apnea. The most recent accident is still under investigation.
In recent years, transportation officials around the country (at the local, state, and federal levels) have started implementing sleep apnea testing in response to deadly, sleep-related accidents.
Sleep apnea is a condition wherein breathing stops and starts throughout the night due to contractions of the throat muscles. People with sleep apnea often wake up repeatedly during the night, which can leave them feeling drowsy during the day.
As many as 18 million Americans may be affected by sleep apnea, but not all are aware that they have the condition. At any rate, 82% of Americans find that getting just one extra hour of sleep at night can be very helpful for getting through the day.
“Safety is our top priority and MTA is going further than any other transportation agency in the country to prevent the risks of apnea. With this proposal, we are not just working to implement industry best practices, the MTA is defining best practices,” said MTA chairman Tom Prendergast. “Sleep apnea is a serious illness and treatment will improve the quality of life for those who have it, and help them live longer.”
The MTA has conducted sleep apnea screenings for Metro-North employees since 2015. The new measure would expand tests to all city bus drivers, subway operators, and LIRR engineers.
If the proposal passes, the MTA could be “the first public transportation agency to systematically screen employees for obstructive sleep apnea and offer priority, specialized treatment.” No details have yet been released as to when screenings might start.