Drowsy drivers warning sign (photo by Flickr user Phil Robinson)Enlarge Photo
Every so often, it is our duty to remind you of the painfully obvious. This is one of those times.
So please bear with us when we say: if you're sleepy behind the wheel, you're much more likely to be involved in an automobile accident than if you were wide awake.
We can make such bold assertions thanks to the wonders of science. A recent study published in the Journey of Clinical Sleep Medicine examined 2,673 individuals living in West Australia who were suspected of "sleep disordered breathing", a condition that's commonly called sleep apnea. According to the National Institutes of Health, breathing pauses related to sleep apnea can be as brief as a few seconds or as long as minute or more:
"They may occur 30 times or more an hour. Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound. Sleep apnea usually is a chronic (ongoing) condition that disrupts your sleep. When your breathing pauses or becomes shallow, you’ll often move out of deep sleep and into light sleep. As a result, the quality of your sleep is poor, which makes you tired during the day. Sleep apnea is a leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness."
The Australian study team wanted to know how sleep apnea -- and related daytime sleepiness -- affect a driver's risk of having an automobile accident. They found that those suffering from sleep apnea have accident rates three times higher than the population as a whole.
While the study's statistical findings are interesting, the general idea that drowsy drivers have accidents is kind of a no-brainer. So why bring it up?
Well, for starters, we're heading into the holiday travel season. Extra time on the road paired with fewer hours of daylight (and sometimes, a few glasses of eggnog) mean an increase in the possibility of accidents. Consider this a community service.
Also, it's important to note that the study was carried out in Western Australia. Like drivers in certain parts of the American West and Midwest, motorists in Western Australia have a reputation for "zoning out", thanks to the state's vast size and sparse population. That often results in drivers nodding off behind the wheel, or simply failing to pay attention to what's in front of the car. It's no coincidence that this is the same part of Australia in which researchers are testing out the world's first attention-powered car.
If you're concerned about sleep apnea, here's a quick and easy test to gauge whether you might be at risk.