March 29, 2016

UNTREATED SLEEP APNEA INCREASES RISK FOR ACCIDENTS

sleep apnea

We all know that drugs, alcohol and vision problems are all risk for traffic accidents. But, what about the seemingly harmless condition called sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is a chronic disorder in which a person experiences pauses in breathing during the night. This leads to poor sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness. Sleep apnea affects at least 25 million adults in the U.S., including more than 20% of commercial truck drivers, according the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The daytime sleepiness caused by OSA can make for dangerously fatigued drivers. Drowsy driving is a factor in 328,000 crashes each year.

New findings from the Harvard School of Public Health reveal that sleep apnea among truck drivers is a major public health issue. In a recent study, which looked at over 3,600 truck drivers, researchers found that drivers with untreated sleep apnea were five times as likely to get into preventable crashes as drivers without the condition.

Stefanos Kales, the author of the study said “we were directly responding to the lack of data about sleep apnea directly related to commercial drivers. Regulating sleep apnea in commercial drivers has been surprisingly controversial, but we hope this data makes the risk clear.”

The study compared drivers with obstructive sleep apnea to drivers without the condition from 2006 to 2010. Among the drivers with OSA, some were leaving the condition untreated while others were treating it with a pressurized-air device called APAP. The APAP devices contained chips that allowed the researchers to see how often they were being used. This made it easier for data to be collected by doing it automatically, rather than from self-reports.

While those who left the OSA untreated had the worst crash rate, the study said that those who regularly treated their condition with APAP devices performed as well as the OSA-free control group. This suggests that more and consistent treatment should be a priority for truck drivers.

While sleep groups and the public can agree that drowsy truck driving is a serious issue, it’s stopped short of being addressed in legislation. Luckily, that’s changing. In March, the U.S. Department of Transportation took the first official step to address sleep apnea in commercial drivers. They’ve announced plans to legislate the issue soon, and invited the public to submit research and suggestions.

The public can currently submit input on the best way to address sleep apnea in people who drive commercial trucks and conduct trains. Kales said it is in American’s public interest to speak out during the 90-day comment period issued by the Department of Transportation. “It’s really key for the public to weigh in on the issue. Drowsy driving kills thousands of people every year. This is not just an issue for the trucking industry.”

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