CHICAGO (CBS) — For years, the nation’s railroads have used something called a “dead man switch” as a crucial safety device. Now there are calls for something similar in airport traffic control towers. You might call it, the “sleeping air traffic controller” switch.

CBS 2’s Mike Parker reports.

Decades old railroad technology might one day be used to keep air traffic controllers from falling asleep.

The idea was first mentioned in Huffington Post comment by someone called Passenger 57. “Isn’t it time,” the writer asked, “for a type of dead man switch in the tower?”

On rail locomotives, the system involves either a motion sensing electric eye, or the operator must periodically touch a button or switch on the console to signal headquarters that everything is OK. If that doesn’t happen, the train automatically slows, then stops.

A control tower system would cause alarms to sound.

Train expert and President of the Chicago Railroad Club William Shapotkin thinks such a system might work at the nation’s airports. He says it could “absolutely” save lives.

Retired Chicago air traffic controller Bob Richards says, “In terms of adding another layer of safety, why not look at it?”

The FAA says only, “We’ve gotten a lot of people who’ve sent us a variety of ideas, including many inventors. We’re not at the point yet of evaluating specific systems.”

Shapotkin says he’s reminded of the old saying that “flying is safe because your time isn’t up. But you don’t want to be on a plane when the pilot’s time is up. Well, the pilot’s dependent on the air traffic controller.”

One type of “dead man switch” may have saved lives on the rails recently. In April of 2010, a New York City subway operator had a heart attack while at the controls. The system worked. The train slowed to a stop and nobody was injured.

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