On December 1 of last year, a commuter train derailed in the Bronx, killing four passengers, injuring more than 60 others, and causing more than $9 million in property damage. Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a report confirming that sleep apnea was the primary cause of the accident, and that a routine screening procedure could have prevented the accident.

Sleep Apnea and Shift Work: A Deadly Mix

In the accident on December 1, the train accelerated to more than 80 miles an hour before entering a curve rated for only 30 miles an hour. The train derailed as it rounded the curve. The force of the derailment caused several of the windows to come off the train, and people were thrown from the train. They were killed or suffered serious injuries from their contact with the ground.

The reason why the train accelerated to this speed is that the engineer fell asleep with the throttle fully engaged so that he continued to accelerate past the recommended maximum speed of 70 miles per hour on that section of track.

He fell asleep at the controls because he had undiagnosed–and untreated–sleep apnea. The effects of sleep apnea were worsened by a recent change in his work shift, caused by a routine shift selection procedure. In addition, his sleep habits had been different over the Thanksgiving holiday, and this made him feel even sleepier on the day in question.

A Routine Screening Could Have Saved Lives

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the NTSB report is how simply this deadly accident could have been avoided. The report notes that within 30 days of diagnosis, sleep apnea treatment had eliminated the engineer’s daytime sleepiness.

This could easily have been detected before the accident. The engineer had numerous risk factors for sleep apnea, such as:

  • Obesity
  • Male gender
  • Snoring
  • Complaints of fatigue
  • Daytime sleepiness

The engineer had even complained of fatigue to his personal physician, but neither his personal physician nor the medical examiner at work considered sleep apnea as a potential cause. He was diagnosed with low testosterone and hypothyroidism. This shows how little most doctors think about sleep apnea.

This oversight could be fatal for anyone. In this case, the fatalities involved not the sleep apnea sufferer, but four innocent passengers.

If you suspect you have sleep apnea, don’t wait for a deadly accident. Please call (402) 493-4175 to talk to an Omaha sleep dentist at the Advanced Dental Sleep Treatment Center.