Falling asleep at the wheel can have dire consequences not only for drivers, but other road users. A recent study shows just who is at risk and what’s causing it.
Sleep deprivation combined with long haul trips are a common cause of truck accidents.
A new report suggests truck drivers across Europe are more likely to succumb to obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) as a result of not getting enough shut eye and living a sedentary lifestyle on the road.
Obesity is a main risk factor of OSA. Over 70% of participants in the European Lung Foundation study were reported to be overweight and as a result had sleep-related breathing problems.
Difficult to detect
Narrowing of the throat interrupts normal breathing during sleep. As a result, the sleep cycle is disrupted — the body reacts by releasing adrenalin, forcing the pulse to rise. Snoring can be an indication of OSA. The irregular sleep pattern caused by OSA prevents a deep sleep, resulting in tiredness, a contributing factor of microsleep.
"Microsleep is difficult to detect," says Hans-Günter Weess, head of the sleep medicine department at the Pfalzklinikum in western Germany. Rapid blinking, yawning, tunnel vision and short-term memory loss are all signs, Weess adds.
Microsleep causes accidents
Between 30-50% of road accidents in Germany are caused by truck drivers who fall asleep momentarily at the wheel, the Intersom Cologne center for sleep, medicine and research reports.
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These are the most serious accidents, Weess remarks, because "the driver doesn't realize what is happening and cannot react."
"Deadly accidents due to sleep deprivation happen quite frequently — perhaps twice as often as accidents as a result of drunk driving," Weess added.
European Union legislation allows truck drivers to drive for a total of nine hours a day. After four and a half hours of driving, truckers are required to take a 45 minute break. Between each nine-hour driving period, they must rest for 11 hours.
Since 2014, EU regulations acknowledge OSA as a high risk factor for motor vehicle accidents.
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Still, the monotony of driving and little room for movement gives way to sleepiness.
New regulations proposed by the European Parliament this year go one step further in trying to ensure drivers get the sleep they need. At the end of their 6-day working week, truckers are required to book into a hotel and rest for 45 hours before resuming work.
Companies must also ensure drivers return to their home countries at least once every month.