There are few things more dangerous than falling asleep at the wheel while driving. About 20% of accidents on major roads are related to lack of sleep and 40% of these involve commercial vehicles.
It’s a worrying problem and those drivers most at risk may not even be aware that they are suffering from a condition known as Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA).
When we go to sleep our throat muscles relax and our airways narrow which can cause snoring but if there is severe narrowing it can stop you breathing for 10 seconds or more – this is known as apnoea.
Luckily your brain will kickstart your breathing – often accompanied by a grunt or a gasp – but you will probably be unaware of this. This cycle may be repeated hundreds of times every night and, as a consequence, your sleep is of poor quality.
About 60% of OSA sufferers are significantly overweight and “bull-necked” – having a collar size of 17 inches or more. Other risk factors include smoking, lack of exercise and excess alcohol consumption. Typical symptoms are poor concentration, headaches, feeling unrefreshed in the morning and sleepy during the day. If you often feel the need to pull into a lay-by at 11am for a cat-nap, you may well have OSA.
A good start is to “score” your symptoms online by doing an “Epworth Sleep Score” and results range from 0-24 with higher numbers making OSA more likely. You should then visit your GP who will probably refer you to a Sleep Clinic for a definitive diagnosis.
Lifestyle adjustments are a good start: Losing weight, stopping smoking, taking regular exercise and reducing alcohol consumption all have a part to play. A specialist gum shield can hold the jaw forward and reduce OSA, and if you have moderate or severe OSA the clinic will probably provide you with CPAP – a night-time mask which works by pumping low pressure air through your airways to keep them open.
The DVLA takes OSA very seriously. If you are formally diagnosed with “mild” OSA you do need to stop Group 2 driving immediately. Providing your symptoms are successfully managed by whatever treatments are necessary you can then return to professional driving – your specialist Doctor would advise you about this. There is no obligation to inform the DVLA if this process takes less than three months.
If you are diagnosed with “moderate” to “severe” OSA you need to stop driving immediately but also inform the DVLA straight away. The likelihood is that your treatment will then involve CPAP and the DVLA will need a report from your clinician to confirm that your symptoms are adequately controlled and that you are compliant with treatment. The DVLA will also expect you to continue at least annual surveillance with the sleep clinic and may request ongoing reports.
Advising your car insurers is also a sensible step.
There are hundreds of professional drivers who unknowingly have OSA. If you are worried that you may be one of them, be honest with yourself and seek advice. OSA is very treatable and the vast majority of professional drivers are able to return to normal working duties once treated. You will also feel a greater general zest for life and enjoy increased energy levels.