About 2 million Japanese are believed to suffer sleep apnea, a disorder in which sleep is repeatedly interrupted due to obstructed breathing, an expert said Friday.

In response to an incident in which the driver of a bullet train nodded off at the controls last month, the transport ministry gathered experts on the syndrome to discuss measures to prevent accidents triggered by sleep disorders.

The driver was diagnosed with sleep apnea, which causes drowsiness during the day. Sleep apnea is also the suspected cause of a freight-train driver’s slumber on the JR Sanyo Line in Hiroshima Prefecture on Feb. 16.

Experts who attended the meeting at the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry said one of the problems with the disorder is that many people fail to notice their symptoms.

Dr. Koji Narui of Toranomon Hospital in Tokyo said the United States has for many years been wrestling with problems triggered by sleep disorders. One cause for the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 was that a NASA official had a sleep disorder, he said.

Narui said annual losses incurred by traffic accidents due to sleep disorders amount to more than $15.9 billion in the U.S.

West Japan Railway Co. plans to check its employees for the disorder, but airlines and shipping companies in Japan have not decided to take this step.

Effective treatment exists for sleep apnea, and the experts proposed necessary steps be carried out to track the problem.

The bullet train driver was sleeping for about eight minutes Feb. 26 when he was at the controls of a train bound for Tokyo from Hiroshima that was traveling at nearly 300 kph.

An automatic train control system halted the train at Okayama Station.

The driver was taken to a hospital in Hiroshima on Feb. 28 and was transferred to an Osaka hospital March 2 to be tested for sleep apnea.

A doctor said he exhibited strong symptoms of the disorder because his breathing stopped more often than the standard 20 times per hour, and the oxygen concentration in his blood was much lower than that of a healthy person.

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