Motorists need to be aware of a potentially fatal sleep disorder that may be responsible for up to a fifth of all motorway accidents in the UK, according to the RAC.
The RAC has joined forces with the Sleep Apnoea Partnership Group to alert drivers to the issue and the dangers of falling asleep at the wheel.
Obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome (OSAS) is a severe form of sleep apnoea which is characterised by symptoms including excessive daytime sleepiness. OSAS is a condition where the muscles in the throat relax too much during sleep, obstructing the airway, which causes the sufferer to temporarily stop breathing and consequently repeatedly wake up to start breathing again. The sufferer is usually unaware this is going on and it can occur hundreds of times in a night, leading to daytime sleepiness and other health problems.
In Britain, 5% of the adult population is thought to have undiagnosed sleep apnoea, of which about a quarter have the more severe form of the condition, OSAS.
The RAC says that up to that up to 1.4 million drivers have not been diagnosed and are six times more likely to have an accident than other drivers.
According to the Sleep Apnoea Partnership Group, in tests of simulated driving, sleep apnoea patients had a driving performance at least as bad as drivers over the alcohol limit.
David Bizley, RAC technical director, said: “This issue should be a real concern for anybody who drives a vehicle. Driving on a motorway can exacerbate the problem as it can be extremely monotonous and hypnotic, particularly if you’re already feeling sleepy.
“There is a real need to raise awareness of this issue, particularly among employers who run fleets of vehicles.”
Professor John Stradling, from the Sleep Apnoea Partnership Group, said: “There is a real lack of awareness by motorists, and sadly also by doctors, not only of the condition, but also of the availability of highly effective treatment.
“The usual treatment is to use a simple continuous positive airway pressure device while asleep which has a very positive effect on many aspects of people’s lives, in particular, abolishing the sleepiness.
“Typically, sufferers are often overweight and that extra weight around the neck puts pressure on the throat. A sedentary kind of lifestyle only makes the condition worse, and people who spend a long time behind the wheel seem to be especially at risk.”
The Sleep Apnoea Partnership Group comprises clinicians, academics, charities and other interested parties with the objective of increasing awareness of the condition. The Partnership Group and the DVSA have published guidance on driving with OSA and OSAS.