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How untreated sleep apnoea can make you a danger while driving

Posted by Blooms The Chemist on 1 May 2023

How untreated sleep apnoea can make you a danger while driving


One of the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea is excessive daytime sleepiness. If you’ve left your sleep apnoea untreated, excessive daytime sleepiness is known to be associated with an increased risk of severe traffic accidents.

We explore how untreated sleep apnoea can impact your driving.

How does sleep apnoea impact my driving performance?

If you are suffering from untreated obstructive sleep apnoea, some symptoms you may be experiencing include excessive daytime sleepiness and impaired brain function.

Both of these symptoms are likely to impair your driving ability.

If you are not getting the sleep you need in order to drive effectively, sleep deprivation can also impact your1:

  • Reaction times

  • Attention span

  • Alertness on the road

  • Judgement while driving

Am I more likely to get into an accident if I suffer from sleep apnoea?

A new study has shown that people who are suffering from obstructive sleep apnoea are nearly 2.5 times more likely to be the driver in a motor vehicle accident than people who don’t have sleep apnoea2.

The study also showed that people who have excessive daytime sleepiness and a short amount of sleep (five hours or less) are independent predictors of increased crash risk in patients who suffer from obstructive sleep apnoea.

However, the study also noted that the incidence of motor vehicle accidents were reduced by 70 per cent among sleep apnoea patients who use CPAP therapy for at least four hours per night.

“Excessive daytime sleepiness is a common symptom of obstructive sleep apnea, which can cause you to awaken in the morning feeling tired and unrefreshed despite a full night of sleep,” said American Academy of Sleep Medicine President Dr. Timothy Morgenthaler.

“Effective identification and treatment of sleep apnea is essential to reduce avoidable, life-threatening accidents caused by drowsy driving.”

Are there specific regulations around obstructive sleep apnoea and driving?

In Australia, there are medical standards for licensing known as AustRoads “Assessing Fitness To Drive” management guidelines.

These standards focus on a range of disorders, including sleep apnoea, excessive sleepiness and other sleep disorders and explain if you are fit or not fit to hold an unconditional drivers licence.

Your doctor can assess your fitness to drive using these standards, which are recognised by all Australian driver licensing authorities.

If your doctor clears you to drive with a medical condition, you may be one of the following3:

  • Fit to drive

  • Fit to drive under stated conditions (this means you may only be able to drive during daylight hours or in an automatic vehicle)

  • Not fit to drive

If you are fit to drive under stated conditions, you must carry your medical certificate and follow the rules of your drivers licence stated conditions at all times.

A person is not fit to drive an unconditional licence if you have established that you have sleep apnoea through a diagnostic sleep study and moderate to severe excessive daytime sleepiness4.

Do I need to self-report my sleep apnoea diagnosis to the relevant driving authority?

Self-reporting your sleep apnoea diagnosis to the relevant driving authority depends on which state you live in.

For example, if you live in NSW, you must notify Transport for NSW if you have a medical condition that impacts your ability to drive safely.

In Victoria, you are also legally required to notify VicRoads of any serious or chronic medical conditions.

People who have sleep apnoea are assessed on a case-by-case basis on whether you are able to drive, depending on the severity and treatment of your condition.

However, this varies by state.

For more information about sleep apnoea and your driving, please speak to your doctor.

References

1Victoria Roads, Sleep Disorders, accessed 29 March 2023

2American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Risk of motor vehicle accidents is higher in people with sleep apnea, accessed 29 March 2023

3Thoracic And Sleep Group QLD, Driving & Sleep, accessed 29 March 2023

4Australian Roads, Assessing Fitness to drive: 8.3 Medical Standards for licensing, accessed 29 March 2023