Sleep apnoea kills – and was proved to do so in this accident on the A1

As part of a worldwide programme of events on World Sleep Day in March, there was a call to action on many important issues relating to sleep, particularly obstructive sleep apnoea – OSA – a disorder that is highly dangerous. Heavy snorers often suffer from OSA.

Good, restorative sleep is continuous and is uninterrupted, deep, and of adequate length. If you achieve all of these, you should feel rested and alert throughout the day. If you’re missing one or more element, your concentration, productivity, attention and alertness will suffer. Daytime sleepiness can also be dangerous, leading to motor vehicle accidents.

Speaking at a road traffic accident prevention conference a day after World Sleep Day, a Harley Street sleep specialist warned delegates:

“OSA affects approximately 4% of male adults and 2% of the female population. If not properly managed, OSA can have a significant impact on a person’s health and well-being. It is suspected that about 20% of car accidents are sleep-related and research has shown that sleepiness can impair driving more than drink! In fact, patients with OSA have a 7-12 fold chance of a road traffic accident compared to those who do not, and test results in Lincolnshire have shown that treating OSA can reduce the accident rate dramatically.”
Sleep researcher.

Co-incidentally, at the same time as World Sleep Day, at a Court hearing being heard in Newcastle, the Operations Director of a leading British bank went on trial for causing a fatal crash due to dangerous driving. Prosecutors claimed he had been driving at speed in his BMW on his way to work from his home in Scotland. It was alleged he became distracted at the wheel, and his car as a result drifted into oncoming northbound traffic on a single carriageway stretch of the A1.

One vehicle had to swerve onto a verge to avoid him, but he struck a glancing blow to another car before hitting a van almost head on, and in doing so killing the driver and seriously injuring his passenger.

Newcastle Crown Court heard the bank boss accepted that his car caused the fatal collision but claimed he could not remember anything about the journey south of Berwick.

Jurors were told that after the accident he went for tests and he was found to have obstructive sleep apnoea. He denied causing death by dangerous driving on the grounds he must have been unconscious during a “micro-sleep” associated with the disorder.

A few days later on 20th March, he was cleared of causing the death of the van driver in the head-on crash after falling asleep at the wheel. It was stated in the Press that he had must have been having a “micro sleep” caused by the sleep apnoea condition which was undiagnosed at the time of the collision. The Mail reported that he underwent sleep tests after the incident and these revealed that he definitely had the sleeping condition. During the trial a sleep specialist said he had diagnosed him with OSA – obstructive sleep apnoea.

As well as affecting other aspects of health, OSA can lead to these micro-sleeps, which can last from just fragments of a second to as much as ten seconds in length, the problem that caused the accident during which his lack of consciousness and allowed him to drift across the road and into the oncoming traffic.

The problem can strike anyone at any age although it’s more likely in men, particularly from middle age onwards, and may affect many at work; being particularly dangerous if someone is driving or working with machinery. Sleepiness and fatigue from OSA and heavy disruptive snoring can however affect any type of working situation during the day.

A simple oral appliance, if used at night when sleeping, can eliminate this problem in most cases, and needs wider recommendation.

By John Redfern