Falling asleep at the wheel is a worldwide problem

According to an article in last week’s Irish Times, sleep apnoea sufferers are more likely to fall asleep when they are driving. We’re always advised to take a break if we feel drowsy but a leading sleep disorders expert told a road safety conference that short rests should not be seen as a cure.

Bored man at the wheel of his car sleeping

 

A recent survey in Ireland showed that people who suffer from sleep apnoea, a condition in which breathing is disrupted during sleep, are seven times more likely to fall asleep while driving. With 146 people killed on the country’s roads so far this year – just one below the death toll in the same period last year – Irish motorists are being cautioned about the impact the condition and tiredness can have on the risk of collisions. The Road Safety Authority (RSA) revealed statistics on how lack of sleep can lead to deaths on the roads, with fatigue believed to be a factor in one- fifth of all collisions.

Prof Walter McNicholas, who is director of the pulmonary and sleep disorders unit at St Vincent’s University Hospital, said short rests should not be seen as a cure for tiredness, but as a temporary relief.

“Untreated sleep apnoea is associated with high levels of sleepiness, which makes driving incredibly dangerous,” he said. “When treated effectively, sleep apnoea is incredibly manageable, so awareness of the signs and early diagnosis is key.”

Prof McNicholas said evidence from research into the cause of road crashes shows, on average, a fifth to a quarter of all motorway crashes are due to excessive sleepiness. The RSA said a survey of driver attitudes and behaviour carried out last year showed that as many as one in 10 Irish motorists admitted they have fallen asleep at the wheel at some point.

In the same week, similar safety initiatives were launched in other countries.

The Australian Trucking Association (ATA) launched a new initiative to raise awareness of important health issues in the trucking industry, starting with obstructive sleep apnoea, and released the first in a series of health fact sheets for its members.

Developed in partnership with the Sleep Health Foundation, the first sheet focuses on sleep apnoea, a condition that affects as many as 40 per cent of Australia’s long distance truck drivers. The sheet outlines the symptoms, including fatigue and heavy snoring, and the steps drivers can take to diagnose and treat the condition.

Long distance drivers in the USA, or ‘Truckers’ as they are termed, have had to come to terms with strict new medical guidelines recently. If they are diagnosed with OSA, and the condition is properly treated with a suitable and approved oral appliance, then they may continue to drive. The present guidance suggests that compliance for treated OSA is that the driver be treated for at least four hours a night and for at least 70% of the time (seven out of 10 nights). Without this, the trucker will lose his licence.

Further to similar statements by Government Motoring Departments in other countries, the DVLA in Britain has made a statement that a greater awareness of obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) could save lives and have underlined the fact that OSA is thought to cause as many as one-fifth of accidents on Britain’s motorways.

Approved oral appliances for mild to moderate OSA include British-made SleepPro Custom. The SleepPro Custom was recommended as the best oral appliance for sleep apnoea after stringent testing of a selection of oral appliances that were conducted in 2014 at Papworth Hospital, the leading UK Hospital and an authority for sleep disorders of this kind,

John Redfern