Sleep apnoea sufferers seven times more likely to fall asleep at wheel

Survey shows one in 10 Irish motorists have fallen asleep at the wheel at some point

People who suffer from sleep apnoea (a condition in which breathing is disrupted during sleep) are seven times more likely to fall asleep while driving, road safety experts warned today.

With 146 people killed on the country’s roads so far this year – just one below the death toll in the same period last year – motorists are being cautioned about the impact the condition and tiredness can have on the risk of collisions.

The Road Safety Authority (RSA) revealed statistics on how lack of sleep can lead to deaths on the roads, with fatigue believed to be a factor in one- fifth of all collisions.

Prof Walter McNicholas, director of the pulmonary and sleep disorders unit at St Vincent’s University Hospital, said short rests should not be seen as a cure for tiredness, but as a temporary relief.


“Untreated sleep apnoea is associated with high levels of sleepiness, which makes driving incredibly dangerous,” he said .

“When treated effectively, sleep apnoea is incredibly manageable, so awareness of the signs and early diagnosis is key.”

In a presentation at the RSA annual safety lecture, the professor said a 15 to 20-minute sleep will only revive a driver for up to an hour.

Prof McNicholas said evidence from research into the cause of road crashes shows, on average, a fifth to a quarter of all motorway crashes are due to excessive sleepiness.

The RSA said a survey of driver attitudes and behaviour carried out last year which showed that as many as one in 10 Irish motorists admitted they have fallen asleep at the wheel at some point.

The authority said the road death toll this year is currently almost as high as last year, when the number of accidents led to the first increase in road deaths since 2005.

Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe said: "Sadly we have seen worryingly high deaths on our roads so far again this year, almost on a par with last year."

“But if we have learned anything from the previous few years, it’s that we can all make real changes to improve road safety. So this week, consider what you can do to make our roads safe.”