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Sunday, 25 March, 2001, 23:39 GMT 00:39 UK
Sleep disorder crash risk for drivers
Many long-haul lorry drivers could be suffering from an undiagnosed sleep disorder.
British sleep experts have warned that lorry drivers could be putting their lives, and the lives of other road users at risk if they fall asleep at the wheel.
Doctors and scientists from the British Sleep Foundation (BSF) are worried that there is a high prevalence of sleep apnoea among lorry drivers.
Sleep apnoea is characterised by heavy snoring at night which then leads to sleepiness or fatigue during the day.
It is more common among obese people, which is another common problem for lorry drivers who often become overweight because of their sedentary lifestyle.
BSF members Dr Melissa Hack, lead consultant at the Gwent Sleep Centre, based at the Royal Gwent Hospital, in Wales, and Professor Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University in Leicester, are urging lorry drivers to go to their GP if they think they could have this condition.
People with sleep apnoea are twice as likely to have a road accident than other drivers because they are too sleepy during the day.
Dr Horne said statistics alone made lorry drivers a point of concern.
"Truck drivers are generally among the safest drivers on the road and have fewer accidents per mile than the average driver.
"But the huge number of miles they cover every year, the amount of time they spend on the road, and the fact that they often drive at night obviously increases their chances of being involved in an accident."
But Dr Hack warned that there were also concerns for shift workers driving trains, boats or planes.
Research has shown that 20% of road accidents in the UK are caused by sleepiness.
The death tolls from sleep related accidents are at least 50% higher because the drivers are unable to swerve or put on their brakes.
Sleep apnoea affects more than one in 50 adults, but only 5% of sufferers ever realise they have it.
Sufferers often wake up during the night, usually without realising it.
Snoring is the most common symptom of sleep apnoea.
The airway becomes blocked and sleep is disrupted to allow the airway to clear - in severe cases this can happen as many as 400 times a night.
Dr Warren Lenney, of the British Thoracic Society, agreed that sleep apnoea is responsible for a number of accidents, but said there was help at hand for sufferers.
"Sufferers experience disturbed sleep due to interrupted breathing and as a result suffer from excessive day time tiredness.
"These bouts of sleepiness can cause some drivers, especially when travelling long distances, to fall asleep at the wheel."
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