Published on August 18, 2015

Lack of sleep can be deadlyLack of sleep can be deadly

The numbers are staggering. Nearly 40 percent of American drivers are estimated to have fallen asleep at the wheel. Of those, 13 percent say they have done so at least once a month, and four percent – 11 million drivers – admit they have an accident or near-accident because they dozed off or were too tired to drive.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conservatively estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year. This results in an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and $12.5 billion in losses. These figures may be the tip of the iceberg, since currently it is difficult to attribute crashes to sleepiness.

Many such accidents could be avoided if the drivers had recognized they suffered from a sleep disorder, says Mir F. Shuttari, MD, a pulmonology physician and director of the Sleep Lab at Falmouth Hospital.

“What I encounter is that it often takes a close call, especially a car accident, to finally motivate someone to acknowledge it’s more than snoring at night. It’s a sleep disorder that can kill,” says Dr. Shuttari.

He will often encounter patients with symptoms that have been present for a long time.

Men in particular will deny a sleep problem, Dr. Shuttari notes. “Many have issues from snoring to episodes of sleep apnea, when they actually stop breathing while asleep. More common is fatigue during the day. It may not be behind the wheel, but it could be at work – even to the extent that coworkers will find them nodding off at their desk, or even while on the phone.”

Approximately 42 million American adults have some form of Sleep Disordered Breathing (SDB). While most women who suffer from SDB are women past menopause, the condition affects men of all ages.

Despite all this, about three of every four cases of SDB, which includes apnea, go undiagnosed.

While people suffering from fatigue and sleeplessness should treat it as a serious health condition, there are steps to take at all times to address drowsiness behind the wheel.

Are You at Risk?

To determine if you are at an increased risk for a sleep-related traffic accident, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety asks the following questions:

  • Are you aged 30 years or younger?
  • Do you work long hours?
  • Have you had six hours of sleep or less in the last 24 hours?
  • Do you often drive between midnight and 6 am?
  • Do you frequently feel drowsy while you are driving?
  • Do you work the night shift?
  • Are you a business traveler who spends time on the road and suffers from jet lag?
  • Do you work more than one job?
  • Could you have an undiagnosed sleep disorder?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you are at a higher risk of having a car accident related to being tired.

If you suspect you have a sleeping disorder, talk to your doctor about your symptoms so you can get proper treatment.

In the meantime, it is important to remember that driving when sleepy may be as dangerous as drunk driving—for you and for others on the road.

This article contains copyrighted content from EBSCO Information Services for Cape Cod Healthcare.