Operating a motor vehicle with sleep apnea, or even after failing to get enough sleep, greatly increases an individual’s risk of getting into an car accident, according to the findings of a new study.
Harvard researchers warn that severe sleep apnea can more than double a person’s risk of having a motor vehicle accident, and only sleeping six hours a night increased the risk by about one-third. The findings were published last month in the journal BMC Medicine.
Researchers conducted an observational study within the Sleep Heart Health Study; a community based study of the health consequences of sleep apnea. The study included 1,745 men and 1,456 women between the ages of 40 to 89.
Participants focused on insufficient sleep duration and obstructive sleep apnea. Researchers used home polysomnography to detect sleep apnea and questionnaires to assess sleep duration and daytime sleepiness. Follow-ups were conducted two year later, focusing on driving habits and motor vehicle crash history.
According to the findings, approximately seven percent of patients reported at least one car crash during the study period. Severe sleep apnea was associated with an 123% increased crash risk compared to patients with no sleep apnea. Even mild to moderate sleep apnea was associated with a 13% increased risk of car crash.
Researchers warned that the risk was seen among patients who said they didn’t feel sleepy, but received fewer than six hours of sleep at night.
Patients who did not have sleep apnea, but slept less than six hours per night, had a 33% increased risk of getting into a car crash while driving drowsy. This was compared to those who slept seven to eight hours per night.
Sleep apnea causes breathing to stop and start, often multiple times, during sleep. It reduces the quality of sleep and increases daytime sleepiness. Many people with sleep apnea report impairments to reaction time, slowed mental processes, and thus impaired driving skills.
Research indicates 10% of car crashes are attributable to sleep apnea and 9% are due to sleeping less than seven hours each night.
A study published in 2016 indicated treating sleep apnea reduces the risk of an auto accident. A study among truckers indicated those who were treated for sleep apnea were able to reduce their risk of crash to the same level as other drivers without sleep apnea.
Roughly one-sixth of American women and one-third of American men suffer from sleep apnea, putting them at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, car crashes, and injury. A study published in 2016 indicated people who have sleep apnea may be twice as likely to suffer an injury while on the job, compared to those that don’t have sleep apnea.
About 25% to 30% of adults get six or fewer hours of sleep at night. One study estimated nearly 84 million Americans are sleep deprived. Many researchers compare driving while drowsy to driving while drunk.