Sleep-prone motorists warned of road risks

People who suffer from sleep apnoea are seven times more likely to fall asleep while driving, road safety experts have warned.

With 146 people killed on the country’s roads this year — one below the death toll for the same period last year — motorists are being cautioned about the impact the condition, and tiredness, can have on the risk of accidents.

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

One of the symptoms of the disorder, which affects breathing while asleep, is excessive day-time sleepiness.

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 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 the evidence from research into the cause of road accidents shows, on average, a fifth to a quarter of all motorway crashes were due to excessive sleepiness.

The RSA pointed to a survey of driver attitudes and behaviour carried out last year which showed that as many as one-in-10 Irish motorists admitted they had fallen asleep at the wheel at some point. The authority said the road death toll this year was currently almost as high as last year, when the number of accidents led to the first increase in road deaths since 2005.

Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe said: “Sadly we have seen a worryingly high number of deaths on our roads so far again this year, almost on a par with last year. We can all make real changes to improve road safety. So this week, consider what you can do to make our roads safe.”


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