Sleep Apnea and Driving
"The ASAA is a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing injury, disability and death from sleep apnea and
to enhancing the well-being of those affected by this common disorder."
American Sleep Apnea Association - June, 1997, and revised October, 2001
Sleepiness, like excessive speed, alcohol, aggressive driving, and inclement weather, contributes to or causes
motor vehicle crashes. In the past few years, sleep as a factor in automobile crashes has begun to be investigated
but, without sufficient data, is still not fully understood. One reason for the lack of data on the role of
sleepiness in crashes is that not all jurisdictions’ accident reports include “sleepiness” (or a term used as its
equivalent) as a factor. In addition, it is often difficult to ascertain at the scene that sleepiness was involved:
there is no simple procedure like a blood alcohol content test to confirm a driver’s sleepiness at the time of the
crash. Moreover, not all investigators are yet properly trained on the role sleep may play in crashes. Instead,
when sleepiness is cited as the cause, it is often only when there are no brake marks or other attempts to avoid
the collision, when the crash occurs during the sleepy phase of the circadian rhythm, and/or when the driver admits
falling asleep. (However, self-report from the driver has been shown to be unreliable because people either deny
falling asleep or are unaware of falling asleep at the wheel.)
Nonetheless, sleepiness does cause and contribute to motor vehicle crashes; in fact, a higher percentage of
fall-asleep crashes result in fatalities than those attributed to other causes. As more attention is paid to these
crashes, the steps that can reduce these crashes need to be explored as well.
Sleepiness is generally caused by sleep deprivation, untreated sleep disorders, and circadian rhythm factors such
as jet lag and shift work. In addition, sleepiness may be caused by medication (prescription or over-the-counter)
and alcohol, or a combination. The most common cause of sleepiness is sleep deprivation. Studies to date indicate
that most fall-asleep crashes are caused by young males under the age of 26, individuals who are most likely sleep
deprived. The number of sleep related crashes due to untreated sleep disorders is not known.