Drowsy Driving and Sleep Apnea

Drowsy driving poses a significant health risk. When you get behind the wheel when you have had too little sleep, you place yourself, your passengers and other road users in danger. 

We all have the occasional poor night’s sleep -- and can appreciate the effect it has the next day on concentration and performance. 

Drowsiness can also result in poor decision-making and delayed reaction time, which can be fatal when driving. 

If you have an undiagnosed sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea, you will experience persistent nights of interrupted sleep -- sleep deprivation that increases the risk of traffic accidents.

The Need for Sleep

It may sound obvious that driving when fatigued is a dangerous and reckless thing to do. However, many people admit in surveys that they drive when feeling drowsy.

The average person needs seven to eight hours of sleep every night. When deprived of the sleep the body requires, the brain will start to acknowledge the need for sleep. You will not be able to continue forever when sleep-deprived. At some point, however hard you try to stay awake, you will fall asleep.

The Impact of Drowsy Driving

Each night you don’t receive sufficient sleep, you accumulate a sleep debt. As this debt grows, you will find it more difficult to concentrate and your reaction times suffer. Your coordination and decision-making also suffers. The effects of drowsiness when driving can be similar to the effects of alcohol.

While alcohol can be measured, the same can’t be done for drowsiness when investigating the cause of an accident. However, studies suggest that up to 8,000 deaths every year could be the result of drowsy driving.

For all the inherent risks of driving when fatigued, a recent study by the National Sleep Foundation said 6 out of 10 drivers admitted driving even when they were struggling to keep their eyes open. Research carried out by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving is a factor in around 100,000 traffic accidents every year.

These stats could still be underestimating the dangers of driving while fatigued. Since drowsiness is difficult to measure, other factors may be registered as the prime factor in causing an accident. 

Quite often a driver may not realize they are drowsy, with the shot of adrenaline caused by an accident means they may be most aware immediately after the event.

Sleep Apnea and Driving

Any disorder which affects sleep quality and leads to sleep deprivation places you at increased risk of traffic accidents. 

One such disorder is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Someone with OSA has their sleep frequently interrupted through the night as the brain prompts the body to awake for air -- due to breathing cessations caused by blocked airways.

Someone with severe OSA can experience over 35 micro-arousals every hour. As these awakenings for air can be brief, they may not even realize it is happening. Without diagnosis the sleep deprivation from OSA causes excessive daytime fatigue. 

As well as increasing the risk from serious health issues such as heart disease and diabetes, undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea increases the risk of involvement in traffic accidents.

It is estimated that 54 million people in the US have OSA. It is a disorder which remains undiagnosed in the vast majority of cases. This puts millions of people at increased risk of an accident when behind the wheel due to the fatigue and drop in concentration levels linked to OSA.

Other Factors

There are several other factors which can contribute to drowsy driving. These include:

  • Time of day, with most crashes occurring between midnight and 8am when your body clock naturally initiates sleep
  • Hectic lifestyle where sleep takes a low priority even though you still must cope with the demands of the day
  • Driving alone without a passenger to talk to or who can share the driving on longer trips
  • People who work shifts or travel across time zones, where the internal body clock can be thrown out of sync
  • Medications including some antidepressants and high blood pressure pills which can make you drowsy
  • Alcohol which on its own can make you tired and dull your reaction speeds – alcohol alongside existing fatigue magnifies the danger

Preventing Drowsiness from Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a treatable disorder. The key is recognizing the symptoms and diagnosis. Daytime fatigue is a major symptom of sleep apnea, but treating the disorder helps return you to nights of uninterrupted sleep. 

Not only will you feel more refreshed, you reduce the risk of developing serious health issues and reduce the risk of traffic accidents caused by drowsy driving.

As well as daytime fatigue, other symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • frequent awakenings at night, sometimes gasping for air
  • snoring
  • morning headaches
  • increased irritability
  • mood swings
  • dry mouth
  • high blood pressure
  • poor concentration

Often it can be a sleep partner who first notices some of these symptoms. 

If you display any of these symptoms, you should consult with your doctor who can arrange an at home sleep test or an overnight sleep study. Once diagnosed, your doctor can help you receive the appropriate treatment for your degree of sleep apnea.

Further Ways to Prevent Drowsy Driving

Looking at your routine and behavioral patterns can also help you sleep better and receive the rest you need. Always ensure you get a good night’s sleep before driving. 

If you still feel tired while driving, pull off the road for a nap.

Look to avoid alcohol and any medications which could make you drowsy. 

Ultimately you want to instill good sleeping habits such as regular bedtimes and having a bedroom environment designed to encourage sleep, one without blue light emitting screens. 

Anything which affects the quality of sleep can increase the risk of a traffic accident. Therefore, if you have a disorder such as sleep apnea, treating the symptoms so you are not sleep deprived reduces your risk from drowsy driving.