• Kyodo

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A shinkansen driver who dozed off at the wheel last week may be suffering from sleep apnea syndrome, officials said Sunday.

The 33-year-old West Japan Railway Co. driver fell asleep for about eight minutes while at the controls of the Hikari No. 126 on Wednesday afternoon. The train’s safety system brought the shinkansen to stop about 90 meters short of its designated spot at Okayama Station. No one was injured in the incident.

Sufferers of sleep apnea syndrome stop breathing during sleep more than 20 times per hour, which often leads them to be drowsy when awake.

JR West officials said the preliminary diagnosis was made by a doctor who is checking the driver and has observed his sleep patterns. The driver was hospitalized in Hiroshima for a medical examination after the incident and was transferred to a hospital in Osaka on Sunday to undergo more detailed tests and a final diagnosis.

According to JR West, the driver said that for the past five or six years he would sometimes wake up out of a sound sleep, and that he had not slept well at all in recent weeks. He also said his family and coworkers had told him that his snoring was noisy and that they noticed he would sometimes stop breathing during sleep.

A great number of SAS sufferers are middle-aged men. Experts say that the disorder is often caused when accumulations of fat in the tongue and respiratory tract block breathing.

JR West said it was the first time that any of its employees have been suspected of suffering SAS. It said that since the firm had never expected this, it would seek the advice of the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry in dealing with the matter.

The driver had never been found to have ailments in the company’s regular medical checks or aptitude tests, but the railway operator does not test for SAS.

The night before the incident, the driver had been drinking until about 13 hours before his shift was to begin and had gotten about 10 hours of sleep.

Experts have long warned of the dangers of SAS for people working in public transportation.

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