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Drivers falling asleep at the wheel linked to 20pc of crashes

WITH as much as 20pc of road collisions caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel, a leading expert is warning that many people have undiagnosed sleep disorders.

A road safety conference has heard 10pc of drivers have admitted falling asleep behind the wheel, with sleepiness now a major concern among safety bosses.

The risk of collision is almost seven times higher for motorists with an undiagnosed sleep disorder. As many as one in five crashes are said to be caused by driver fatigue.

An expert in the field, Professor Walter McNicholas of St Vincent's Hospital, told the Road Safety Authority's (RSA) annual conference in Dublin Castle that drivers suffering from fatigue were unable to react to accidents.

"Because drivers falls asleep, they are less likely to take evasive action and cannot react to the accident. They [collisions] tend to occur after midnight and during the afternoon. They typically involve a single vehicle leaving the motorway."

He went on to explain that as many as one in 10 adult males have symptoms of sleep apnoea, and prevalence is rising due to increased obesity across the general population. The condition is treatable and leads to a dramatic reduction in risk.


"Sleep apnoea is the most prevalent medical condition associated with sleepiness. It cuts off the air intake to the lungs and these episodes can occur several hundred times a night, typically not enough to wake up the person but enough to disturb sleeping," he said.

Medical guidelines issued by the RSA last year state people should not drive until the condition is treated. But Prof McNicholas warned of a lack of resources in the health system to diagnose and treat patients.

"A major problem in Ireland is the lack of clinical resources to diagnose and treat the volume of patients indicated by epidemiological data," he said.

"Figures indicate sleep apnoea affects about 10pc of adult males. That's not to suggest they will fall asleep in the car, that's only in extreme cases, but if one in 10 does, it's 1pc of all males. What a shame it would be not to identify those people and treat them."

Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe said he would discuss making resources available with Health Minister Leo Varadkar.

Some 146 people have died on the roads so far this year, one less than for the same period in 2013. Mr Donohoe said the slight reduction was "little cause for celebration" as many families were still coping with the "terrible tragedy" of a fatal crash.