How Sleep Apnea Increases the Risk of Drowsy Driving Accidents

We have probably all heard the expression “asleep at the wheel” to describe someone who has temporarily lost focus with often disastrous consequences. 

This is similar to “drowsy driving” when there’s difficulty staying awake and there’s great risk of accidents. So-called drowsy driving is not a new phenomenon -- but it is only in recent times that the topic has been more fully researched.

Fatigue will obviously be the prime cause of drowsy driving but there are many factors to consider in determining the root of the drowsiness pattern. Lack of sleep will clearly be tied with reduced alertness -- and sleep apnea is often the root cause.

Bad Outcome

Driving requires an awareness of the vehicle, the street, traffic and the ability to anticipate what may lie ahead. Tiredness can strike in seconds and feeling drowsy leads to:

  • Inattentiveness
  • Slowed reactions
  • Poor judgment

A recent survey reported that one in 25 drivers had admitted to falling asleep while driving. It also noted that drivers who snored or slept less than six hours a day were more likely to fall asleep at the wheel.

Official figures from 2017 (probably underestimated) record drowsy driving as being a prime factor in more than 91,000 driving accidents which resulted in over 50,000 injuries and almost 800 fatalities. 

Although unconfirmed, road safety experts strongly suspect that drowsy driving may play a significant role in more than 6,000 fatal motor crashes every year.

Risk Factors

Feeling sleepy when driving can affect anyone at any time, but some drivers are more prone to drowsiness than others. The main categories of those at risk include:

  • Teenagers and young adults
  • Drivers traveling between midnight and six in the morning
  • Commercial and long-distance drivers
  • Drivers who regularly skip sleep
  • Drivers on extended or night shifts
  • Drivers on medications known to cause drowsiness
  • Drivers with sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea

Taking precautions and avoiding excessive driving times will certainly reduce the risk of drowsiness while driving. Taking regular breaks, driving with the windows open -- and being aware of early signs of drowsiness -- can all be of benefit.

However, a medical condition such as obstructive sleep apnea requires special treatment.

Warning Signs

It may seem unlikely, or even impossible, to those who have never experienced it -- but it is quite possible to literally fall asleep while driving. Many people have driven a vehicle while feeling a bit tired, but have carried on and arrived safely at their destination without incident. They were lucky!

Early warning signs of drowsy driving include:

  • Frequent yawning
  • Difficulty keeping eyes open
  • Difficulty keeping head up
  • Dozing intermittently
  • Lack of concentration and focus on what is around
  • Not remembering the past few miles driven
  • Feeling impatient and grouchy
  • Driving too close to vehicles in front
  • Missing exit and other road signs
  • Drifting across lanes

Experiencing one, some, or all of these warning signs means it is time to at least take a short break if not postpone the trip altogether. 

Drivers should never set out on a long trip when feeling tired -- or having had a poor night's sleep. 

Drinking coffee or taking a short nap may allow a driver to continue on for a short period, but it will not cure the problem. 

Numerous driving accidents have been caused by drivers who thought they were sufficiently rested only to discover this was far from being the case.

Safer Driving with PAP Therapy

In comparison to other drivers, a study has shown that drivers with sleep apnea are almost 2.5 times more likely to be involved in driving accidents. However, the same study also concluded that the risk level was reduced by almost 70% for sleep apnea sufferers who used Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) therapy to control the condition.

PAP therapy is widely accepted to be the most effective method to combat obstructive sleep apnea and its effects which include daytime drowsiness. 

The PAP device delivers air under pressure which keeps the airways clear of the obstructions symptomatic of sleep apnea. With a high rate of effectiveness (some users report 100% success), the use of a PAP machine ensures a better quality of sleep which, in turn, means the user is more alert and less prone to tiredness.

Sleep researchers believe that around one-third of the world's population has some difficulty sleeping well -- and many of these may have some form of sleep apnea. 

Suffering from any sleep disorder does not disqualify a person from driving, but it is a risk that must be considered before getting behind the wheel. 

Obstructive sleep apnea is often first noticed by a sleeping partner and symptoms include:

  • Persistent snoring
  • Gasping for air
  • Interrupted breathing 
  • Possible night sweats
  • Excessive need to urinate at night

Daytime drowsiness, tiredness and lack of concentration

The first five of these known symptoms can be counteracted with the use of a PAP device. This will resolve the issues with daytime tiredness and drop in concentration levels.

Proper treatment of the underlying sleep disorder is the first step towards regaining control over daily life -- as the importance of good, quality sleep cannot be underestimated.

Restoring concentration and attention levels to what they should be will clearly be of tremendous benefit not just in daily life -- but also in combating drowsy driving and avoiding driving accidents.