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Sleep Apnea Increases Risk of Accidents

On Behalf of | Nov 3, 2011 | Safety |

Twenty years ago, most people had never heard of the medical condition known as sleep apnea. We certainly knew of people who always seemed tired regardless of hours slept or a chronic snorer. But how many knew that these problems were often related to a larger medical issue? Today, however, most us not only have heard of sleep apnea, we are aware that it has been linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart problems and stroke. And yet, despite all the information available on sleep apnea, too few know of its disturbing link to traffic accidents and fatalities.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which breathing constantly stops and starts or is of too low a volume. A person with sleep apnea will often snore loudly or stop breathing for brief moments, which results at times with a snorting or choking sound as they resume breathing. This pattern often causes the sufferer to wake repeatedly or be unable to stay in a deep enough sleep for long enough time to be fully rested. The condition can vary in severity, and is usually a chronic condition which has lasted for years before diagnosis. As a result, a person with sleep apnea has usually developed a chronic problem with fatigue, resulting in excessive daytime sleepiness, irritability, and cognitive difficulties such as an inability to concentrate or memory problems.

These symptoms also mean that a sleep apnea sufferer is at an increased risk of accidents. Studies have shown that sufferers of untreated sleep apnea are twice as likely as non-sufferers to be involved in a crash. Even more disturbing, they are up to five times more likely to have a serious crash that causes personal injury. One study showed that 24% of sleep apnea patients admitted to falling asleep at the wheel at least once a week. And one of the most at-risk groups for sleep-apnea related fatigue are commercial drivers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) determined that up to one-third of all commercial drivers in the United States have some form of sleep apnea. This is an extremely high incident rate, as only about 3% of the general population has been estimated to suffer from sleep apnea.

Though the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) and FMCSA have recommended pre-screening for sleep apnea among all commercial transportation operators, currently it is not required by law. In defense of its position, the NTSB cited numerous incidents where sleep apnea was a contributing factor. In one case, air traffic controllers were unable to reach the pilots of a commercial flight for a full eighteen minutes after it failed to land as planned. An investigation revealed that both pilots had fallen asleep while flying, with the captain ultimately diagnosed with severe sleep apnea. They also cited sleep apnea as a factor in a fatal bus accident which killed nine, a deadly trolley crash, a train collision, and even the grounding of a cruise ship.

Far more common than such high-profile incidents are the tens of thousands of traffic collisions caused annually by fatigued drivers. Sadly, when sleep apnea was a factor, a simple screening and treatment might have prevented the accident. However, even when laws do not exist regarding commercial operator testing, in some cases commercial drivers and their employers may be held liable if sleep apnea is a known or suspected issue. If you have been in an accident in which you know or suspect the driver was fatigued, contact an Illinois personal injury attorney who can advise you.

About the Author: Brooke Haley marketing associate at Millon & Peskin, Chicago workers compensation attorney that practice in the areas of Civil Litigation, Workers’ Compensation, and Personal Injury. Millon & Peskin is a General Civil Litigation Practice with the goal of representing the interests of injured workers, throughout all applicable Courts within the State of Illinois. For more information, please visit

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