One in five road accidents on motorways and trunk roads are said to be attributable to drivers falling asleep at the wheel. When we read such statistics, our brains tend to quickly reference tachographs, rest areas at motorway service stations, lay-by pull ins and late nights that have led to drowsiness. We probably focus far too little on something that could be affecting up to 8 per cent of male HGV drivers over the age of 50 – particularly those who are obese. This ‘something’ is a serious medical condition called sleep apnoea.
Sleep apnoea has made news headlines in the past, but action on this issue has been somewhat dozy. In 2005, the BBC programme ‘Real Story’ suggested 41% of HGV drivers have a sleep disorder of some form or other and that urgent treatment for sleep apnoea was required by as many as one in six. This raises a massive issue; drivers suffering sleep apnoea are 6-15 times more likely to be involved in a road accident.
After an HGV driver’s sleep apnoea caused the death of a young motorist on the M62 in 2006, the driver himself began campaigning for change. He had noted his own drowsiness during daytime driving and had been to see his GP. He was tested for diabetes, not sleep apnoea. When the results came back clear, he was diagnosed with stress.
The coroner who heard this case recommended a toughening of the rules governing commercial drivers and enhanced medical screening of HGV drivers, to help identify sleep apnoea. He also suggested that HGV drivers be better educated on this condition, so they realise it does not mean the end of a driving career. The Department of Transport responded by saying it saw no reason to make changes.
This effectively means that the onus to respond to sleep apnoea is with drivers and their employers. What is now available is a resource to which to refer, http://www.realsleep.co.uk/rsuk/sleep-apnoea-driving.htmlwhich seeks to raise awareness of the disorder. This distinguishes between Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) and Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome (OSAS). The first affects breathing during sleep, due to partial or total closure of the airway behind the tongue. The latter is much more serious, combining OSA and excessive sleepiness by day. OSAS affects around a quarter of those who suffer from OSA and involves hundreds of breathing pauses per night, resulting in very low quality sleep. It can lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke, but also reduce life expectancy by around a fifth.
Knowing the difference between the two conditions is key, as it affects what you need to do with regard to your driving licence and the DVLA. If you simply have OSA – which you can often detect through loud snoring and abnormal breathing patterns – you do not have to inform the DVLA. However, if you have OSAS and are finding your driving affected by bouts of sleepiness, you must inform the DVLA and not take to the wheel until the symptoms are back under control.
The symptoms of OSAS are not just drowsiness, but headaches in the morning, often accompanied by a dry mouth or sore throat, high blood pressure, irritability, frequent trips to the bathroom during the night, choking during sleep, an absence of feeling refreshed after sleep and poor concentration. If this rings any bells, you should make a GP appointment fast. If it is impairing your driving and you are diagnosed with OSAS to a degree that is causing you problems at the wheel, you are legally required to stop driving and tell the DVLA, regardless of whether you are a Group 1 or Group 2 driver. If you do not do this, you are committing a criminal offence and may invalidate your insurance cover.
The 1988 Road Traffic Act says all drivers have a duty of care to be fit to drive, which means being mentally alert, as well as physically able. If you are employed as an HGV or other driver, you must tell your employer that you have OSAS, so they can assist you through the treatment phase. The Association of British Insurers says insurance premiums for a driver with OSAS should be unaffected, if they are taking action and the symptoms are being controlled. If the DVLA considers the driver capable of driving, there should be no reason to alter the amount of premium paid.
However, should you be involved in an accident and not have declared that you have OSAS, you could find yourself being prosecuted and have your insurance claim refused. Employers should, therefore, be fully supportive of drivers with OSAS, as to force them to drive could have a massive and devastating impact on their business, if something goes wrong.
Advising the DVLA of an OSAS diagnosis can be done by letter, phone or email, but you must return your SL1V form if you are an HGV driver or SL1 form, if a car or motorcycle driver. You must also return the appropriate application form D1 or D2, which can be sent out to you, or found online at www.direct.gov.uk The DVLA will then contact your medical consultant for information. If you are an HGV driver, you should ask your doctor or consultant to note that fact, so your treatment can be scheduled quickly. The length of treatment should last for just a few weeks, after which you should be able to return to the cab, once you have reapplied for your licence.
If this information is giving you a wake-up call and making some sense of what is happening to you behind the wheel, do not delay. Take action, talk to a doctor and then your employer and take the required steps that will help you to not only get back on the road, but also back on the road to recovery and full health once more. Help yourself by controlling your weight, smoking and alcohol consumption, as these can all be factors in OSAS. Have a good read of the steps you need to take to stay legal and protected through your insurance policy, by heading tohttp://www.realsleep.co.uk/rsuk/sleep-apnoea-driving.html Above all, perhaps, share what you have learned and talk to other drivers who may be suffering the symptoms described here. Don’t let another HGV driver sleepdrive their way into a fatal or severe accident.