Sleep apnea and driving

The New York Times reports that a train engineer who was at the controls a Metro-North train that derailed killing four people and injuring 70 had severe sleep apnea that had not been diagnosed.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which a person stops breathing or breathes shallowly while asleep. The pause in breathing can last from just a few seconds to several minutes and in severe cases, it can occur more than 30 times in an hour.

Sleep apnea is a severe sleep disturbance and can cause sleepiness during the day time. Often the disorder goes undiagnosed.

Sleep apnea and sleep deprivation are both linked to motor vehicle accidents and sleepiness, like driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, can contribute to an accident, especially if the driver falls asleep or zones out at the wheel. A driver who is experiencing excessive daytime sleepiness may be 7-15 times more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident.

People in transportation fields such as bus drivers, train operators and heavy equipment operators may pose a danger on the roadways especially when their shifts changes or when they have long shifts.

While the subject of sleep apnea is in the news after the New York train derailment, it’s been a problem that researchers have looked at for a number of years. In 1991, a paper — “Drivers with untreated sleep apnea. A cause of death and serious injury.” — looked at three patients with untreated sleep apnea who fell asleep while driving causing serious motor vehicle accidents. According to the paper, one person was killed, one became a paraplegic and the three drivers with sleep apnea were seriously injured.

Some commercial drivers may resist being tested for sleep apnea for fear that, if they are diagnosed, they may lose their job.

Diagnosis of sleep apnea requires a sleep study which measures a person’s Apnea-Hypopnea Index using electrodes. Some indicators for testing is snoring, a high Body Mass Index, Hypertension, Diabetes, daytime fatigue and Cardiovascular Disease though these factors are not always present in people suffering from sleep apnea.

Many states have voluntary reporting of sleep apnea by physicians. While a physician may not be mandated by law to report an impaired river, a physician who believes that a patient’s medical condition impairs safe driving making them a hazard to themselves and others has an ethical duty to report the patient to the Department of Licensing.

Drivers who are involved in a motor vehicle accident caused by a sleep disorder may be found liable for the accident. In addition, their employers may also be found negligent. In one such case, the family of Susan Slattery received a $40.8M wrongful death and injury settlement because a semi-truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and the Slattery family estate successfully argued that the truck driver was not properly supervised.

This information is provided by Seattle Car Accident Lawyer blog, a service of The Farber Law Group. We represent people who have been seriously injured in motor vehicle accidents caused by the negligence of others.

Contact The Farber Law Group at 1-800-244-9087 or to schedule a free and confidential case evaluation. Our Bellevue office is here to assist you.

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