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Thursday, 18 March, 1999, 14:03 GMT
Sleep disorder causes car crashes

A large number of car accidents are caused by drowsiness
People who suffer from a common sleep disorder are much more likely to have a road accident than other drivers, according to a study.

A research team from Burgos, Spain, says that people with sleep apnoea - a condition that causes snoring and irregular breathing - are seven times more likely to crash than other drivers.

Previous reports have shown that sufferers are only twice or three times as likely to have road accidents.

The research comes as a UK poll shows that up to 11% of drivers admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel.

Sleep apnoea is caused by the throat temporarily closing during sleep.

The sleeper wakes violently because of a lack of oxygen.

The condition, which is more common in overweight people, can cause extreme fatigue because many hours of sleep are lost.

It can be identified only through monitoring the way people sleep.

Screening

The Spanish researchers studied 102 drivers who had been given emergency treatment for traffic accidents between April and December 1995.

A random group of 152 patients was chosen as a control.

The patients were screened for sleep apnoea at home.

Other factors such as alcohol consumption, age, driving experience and use of drugs which cause drowsiness were taken into account.

The researchers found that 4% of men and 2% of women in their study suffered from sleep apnoea.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers concluded: "There is a strong association between sleep apnoea...and the risk of traffic accidents."

A 1988 study by the US National Commission on Sleep Disorders found that drowsiness was a factor in about half of all traffic accidents and 36% of fatal accidents.

Tougher action

In an accompanying editorial, Dr Paul Suratt of the University of Virginia Medical Centre and Dr Larry Findley of the Sleep Disorders Center of Northern Colorado call for tougher action on sleep disorders.


Many people have trouble getting a good night's sleep
They argue: "Because of the magnitude of the problem of traffic accidents related to sleep apnoea, all [US] states should enact rules to deal with drivers who have sleep apnoea and sleepiness in general."

Pilots are already tested and the US government is considering whether to add sleep disorders to a two-year medical examination required for all interstate commercial drivers.

However, few states take action against the average car driver.

One that does is California which requires doctors to report anyone with a sleep disorder for assessment as to whether they are fit to drive.

In the UK, 20% of road accidents which lead to death and serious injury are caused by drowsiness or sleep disorders, according to the Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions.

Each fatal accident is estimated to cost the government 750,000.

A group of sleep disorder specialists are launching the British Sleep Foundation on Tuesday to raise awareness about the problem.

They say the US puts around $88m into researching the problem, while the UK spends next to nothing.

A recent Gallup survey showed that 11% of people admitted to having fallen asleep when driving.

Some 2% of Britons are estimated to suffer from sleep apnoea and 10% from insomnia.

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07 Jan 99 | Health
The body's alarm clock
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