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Monday, 2 December, 2002, 00:01 GMT
Sleep disorder risk for drivers
Sleep apnoea affects one in 12 men over 40
Five million drivers across Europe are at extra risk of falling asleep at the wheel because they suffer from a sleep disorder which leaves them drowsy during the day, research suggests.

A study by an international team of doctors has found many people with sleep apnoea do not realise they have the condition and are not receiving the treatment they need.

As a result, many continue to drive even though they are up to six times more likely to be involved in a road traffic accident.


Over five million Europeans are affected with all of the ensuing disastrous consequences

Professor Walter McNicholas
Sleep apnoea causes sufferers to stop breathing five times each hour while they are asleep.

People with the condition can also experience frequent attacks of sleepiness during the day, as well as excessive fatigue and a lack of concentration.

This severe form of the condition affects up to 8% of men between the ages of 40 and 60 and 2% of women. In population terms, that accounts for five million people across Europe.

Rules vary

However, doctors on the European Respiratory Society's task force have found that treatment for patients varies across Europe.

They have also found that while some countries restrict people with the condition from driving, others do not.

In France, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK sufferers must follow treatment or face losing their licences. In the rest of the European Union, no such rules exist.

The doctors have called on the EU to address these variations and to ensure other drivers are protected.

They have suggested that drivers with sleep apnoea should be legally required to declare their condition.

Professor Walter McNicholas of University College Dublin and joint chairman of the task force, warned that failure to address the situation risked lives.

"Over five million Europeans are affected with all of the ensuing disastrous consequences," he said.

Sleep apnoea occurs as a result of periodic obstruction of the upper airways. This can cause people to stop breathing. But it also reduces their blood oxygen levels which can affect concentration levels.

The condition can be treated so that sufferers do not suffer from fatigue or concentration problems during the day.

Effective treatment

Patrick Levy, of University Hospital Centre of Grenoble in France and joint chairman of the task force, said providing treatment to patients could enable many to continue driving without being a risk to themselves or others.

He said: "This situation is even more regrettable in view of the fact that there is now an effective treatment for the condition, which involves a nasal mask worn nocturnally to provide continuous positive airway pressure."

The study is published in the European Respiratory Journal.

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