Sleep Apnea and Automobile Accidents

Recently, there have been legal and ethical battles fought over whether truck drivers at high risk for sleep apnea should be required to have an overnight sleep study prior to driving. In theory, being at higher risk for sleep apnea means that they will be more likely to fall asleep behind the wheel, killing themselves or others. There have been a few studies to date that examine the effects of sleepiness on driving, but rates of accidents caused by sleepiness are difficult to obtain. When examining fatal accidents, it’s hard to determine whether sleepiness was the cause. Similarly, those who have gotten in accidents are reluctant to admit that they fell asleep at the wheel, as it would put them at fault for the accident.

Because of this, a group of researchers attempted a novel method of studying the interaction between sleepiness and driving accidents. They approached 56 subjects who had recently been in traffic accidents. And by recent I mean they were still hospitalized after having been involved in serious motor vehicle crashes. The researchers then assessed how many of these people had risk factors (large tongue, overweight, etc.) for sleep apnea.

Results showed that a whopping 75% of these subjects were indeed at risk for sleep apnea. Importantly, of those who suffered from systemic complications while hospitalized, 83% of those had symptoms indicating they were at very high risk for severe sleep apnea1.

Importantly, being at a high risk for sleep apnea does not guarantee that you have it. Regardless, it is likely that many of these subjects did indeed have sleep apnea, meaning their accidents could have been be related to sleepiness from a lack of proper sleep. What’s more of these could also be from actually falling asleep at the wheel. This study suggests that untreated sleep apnea does indeed up the risk for driving accidents.



1. Irwin ED, Reicks P, Beal A, Byrnes M, Matticks C, Beilman G. A prospective study of the role of sleep related disordered breathing as a risk factor for motor vehicle crashes and the development of systemic complications in non-commercial drivers. World J Emerg Surg. 2014 Jan 7;9(1):2.

Janna Mantua


Janna is a PhD Student / Graduate Research Assistant at University of Massachusetts Amherst with a background in clinical sleep research and psychology. Janna Mantua is a PhD student in the Behavioral Neuroscience department at the University of Massachusetts. Her research focuses on sleep and aging, with specific projects on cognitive health, inflammation, memory formation, and neuroimaging. Prior to her PhD work, Janna was involved in research on sleep apnea and cognitive decline at the NYU Sleep Disorders Center.

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