Sleep apnea can put a lot more than a good night’s sleep in danger. Untreated sleep apnea can trigger extreme fatigue that lessens reaction time behind the wheel of an automobile or causes a driver to fall asleep behind the wheel.
That means your health and safety — as well as your driver’s license and car insurance rates — could be in jeopardy if you or a loved one has untreated sleep apnea.
People with sleep apnea are more likely to fail a driving simulator test and report nodding while driving, according to research presented at the 2013 Sleep and Breathing Conference in Berlin. The researchers found 24 percent of those with untreated sleep apnea failed the test vs. 12 percent of people without sleep apnea.
Many patients with the sleep disorder were unable to complete the test, had more unprovoked crashes and could not adhere to the clear driving instructions given at the beginning of the simulator test.
In a separate study from the University Hospital in Leeds, U.K., 35 percent of patients with sleep apnea admitted to nodding off behind the wheel, and 38 percent of that group failed a simulated driving test. Eleven percent of people without sleep apnea said they’ve nodded off behind the wheel, but no one in that group failed the driving test.
The Berlin conference study linked sleep apnea with an increased chance of being involved in road traffic accidents. And that can get costly.
If the fatigue associated with sleep apnea causes you to weave or swerve off the road, you’re at risk of getting a traffic ticket for distracted driving. And in addition to paying a fine that could cost as much as a few hundred dollars (depending on the municipality and type of ticket), you could be facing three to five years of higher car insurance premiums.
“Car insurance companies view citations for distracted driving as the possibility that a driver may file a claim in the future,” said Billy Van Jura, an insurance broker in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.“A person who drives distracted is thought to be riskier than someone who doesn’t receive those types of tickets, and to protect themselves against that risk, car insurance companies raise the rates of drivers who receive moving violations.”
Just how high your rates soar depends on your driving record, the type of ticket issued, your car insurance company and other factors. “Each insurer and state has their own scale for assessing points or penalty rates,” Van Jura said. The average rate hike for a ticket or accident is anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent, and Van Jura noted that penalty rate can hang around for up to five years.
Staying Alert Behind the Wheel
The best way to avoid fatigue-related crashes or accidents is to get a good night’s sleep.
For those with sleep apnea, that means a trip to the doctor to discuss common symptoms of sleep apnea such as snoring, fatigue, waking in the middle of the night (especially if you find yourself gasping for air) or being told by a sleep partner that you stop breathing while sleeping.
The next step may be a sleep study to diagnosis sleep apnea and establish therapy with continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP.
CPAP is one of the most effective therapies to treat sleep apnea, which leads to enjoying a consistent restful sleep.
Think your sleepiness behind the wheel could be sleep apnea? Take this online quiz to assess your risk of OSA and gain insight into risk factors and symptoms you should discuss with your doctor.