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Can Sleep Apnea Double Your Car Crash Risk?

Posted On April 8, 2014
car crash risk
April 08, 2014

Today is the third day in a row that Douglas had trouble driving to work. He yawned constantly, rubbed his eyes and blinked a lot as he found it increasingly difficult to keep his big browns open for the commute. And yesterday was worse, as not only did he find himself drifting from lane to lane but Douglas was startled at how close he came to entering the highway going in the wrong direction! Not a bachelor out partying every night, Douglas is happily married unless his wife, Joyce decides to follow through and divorce him if he doesn’t do something about his snoring. As Douglas, may or may not know, his issues with driving drowsy and snoring go hand in hand with a sleep apnea diagnosis. So can sleep apnea double car crash risk?

Double Car Crash Risk

Believe it or not, drivers who are sleep deprived are the cause of just as many car crashes as people caught drunk driving. Most drivers are drowsy and sleepy because they do not sleep soundly as they are walking around with untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This condition is characterized by episodes whereby breathing is stopped due to a partial or complete obstruction of the person’s airway. Besides snoring, other symptoms of OSA are daytime sleepiness, poor concentration, memory loss and mood swings. It is currently estimated that 80 percent of people who have OSA are undiagnosed and untreated, which also increases their risk for life-threatening medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

But can untreated sleep apnea really double your risk of having a car crash? In a study conducted at the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute along with the University of British Columbia, researchers discovered that sleep apnea doubled a person’s risk of being in a car crash. Results published in Thorax demonstrated that there was also an increase in the severity of the crash, which even occurred with mild sleep apnea. Although it has been found that men have more car crashes than women in the general population, test subjects with sleep apnea in this study had car mishaps at the same rate for both genders.

With their results presented at the 2013 Sleep and Breathing Conference in Berlin, a research group located at the University Hospital in Leeds, UK, carried out two separate studies to evaluate the effect sleep apnea has on driving during a simulator test. Part one of the study, looked at 133 untreated sleep apnea test subjects and 89 individuals without the condition. All involved in this first study completed a 90 km (55 miles) highway simulation and were then analyzed on their ability to complete the distance test, time spent in the middle lane, an unprovoked crash or a veering off the road event/crash. Twenty-four percent of participants with sleep apnea failed the simulation test as compared to 12 percent who did not have the condition. Of note, many of the participants were unable to even complete the entire test, had more unprovoked crashes and could not follow the driving instructions given at the start of the simulator test.

In part two of the study, 118 people with untreated sleep apnea and 69 people without completed a questionnaire about their driving behavior and then took the same driving simulation test. Thirty percent of those with sleep apnea shared that they nodded off at the wheel and then 38 percent of this group went on to fail the test. Eleven percent without sleep apnea stated that they did not nod off at the wheel and then subsequently none in this group failed the test.

According to the chief investigator, Dr. Mark Elliott, the group concluded that driving simulators can be a good way of checking the effects that a condition like sleep apnea can have on driving ability.

If you have sleep apnea and would like to explore available treatment options, please contact one of our medical concierges today at 1-855-863-4537 to schedule a free consultation.


About Phoebe Ochman

Phoebe Ochman, Director of Communications for Sleep Apnea Treatment Centers of America, manages all content and communications for the company.
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