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Asleep at the wheel

15th November 2012
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Page 16, 15th November 2012 — Asleep at the wheel
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

Sleep apnoea is a common disorder that can have catastrophic consequences when a sufferer gets behind the wheel

Words: Nina Dhillon

Being tired impairs reaction times, vigilance, alertness and concentration behind the wheel. It also reduces the speed at which information is processed and affects the quality of decision making.

Put all these together, and there is an increased risk of causing a road accident.

Falling asleep at the wheel is thought to cause one in five crashes on motorways and trunk roads. Although some drivers fall asleep as a result of not taking breaks or not sleeping for long enough at night, some nod off because of obstructive sleep apnoea: a disorder that interrupts sleep and causes acute daytime sleepiness.

Sedentary job

Risks of developing such a condition increase with smoking, obesity and age, and LGV drivers are at a higher risk of developing the disorder because of the sedentary nature of the job.

To allow a person who is fatigued, to the extent that there is a risk that he may fall asleep at the wheel, to drive is a breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The act requires employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of all employees while at work. Hauliers also have a responsibility to ensure that others are not put at risk by their work-related activities.

There is a plethora of legislation in place – EU and domestic – to ensure drivers’ hours are monitored. One of the aims of the law is to alleviate the tiredness that drivers face in the performance of their duties. Such matters are actively policed by Vosa and failures in compliance may result in a suspension of an O-licence.

However, little, if anything, is published to alert employers or drivers about the dangers of sleep apnoea.

So what is the condition? Sleep apnoea is a common and potentially serious disorder and affects the way a person breathes when he is sleeping. In untreated sleep apnoea, breathing is briefly interrupted or becomes very shallow and these breathing pauses typically last between 10 to 20 seconds and can occur up to 100 times a night.

Untreated sleep apnoea prevents a person from getting a good night’s sleep. When breathing is paused, the sleeper is jolted out of his sleep rhythm. Consequently, the sufferer spends more time in light sleep and less in restorative sleep, which is needed for energy and productivity.

Chronic sleep deprivation results in daytime sleepiness, slow reflexes and poor concentration, which can lead to an increased risk of accidents.

The symptoms of sleep apnoea include loud snoring, gasping during sleep, and long pauses in breathing. Therefore, aside from the latter, it is common for sufferers to be oblivious to it as they have no means of being aware of the symptoms, unless their partner advises them.

The result is that a driver will not be refreshed despite believing that he has enjoyed a good night’s sleep.

In an accident scenario, witnesses often describe the accused driver of being in a trance-like state with no recognition of traffic conditions. After a collision and during police interviews a driver may contest that he was not asleep but often cannot account for periods that last as long as 16 seconds.

It is often at this stage that lack of specialist knowledge in the legal representative allows admissions to be made by a driver that the only logical explanation for the events that have taken place is sleep. Police will interview the driver to establish whether any serious offence has been committed.

The more serious offences of causing death by dangerous or careless driving carry custodial sentences and sleep is an aggravating feature for both offences.

However, the investigation will not stop there: the Crown Prosecution Service will indicate that all lines of investigation to establish the cause of an accident must be considered. And employers will be investigated to determine whether they had any part to play in the l Nina Dhillon incident, either knowingly or by genuine omission.

is a senior Under the Corporate Manslaughter Act an employer has associate, a duty of care to an employee, and there could be a strong regulatory, at legal argument for a claim if the employer failed to ensure DWF. Contact that its driver was fit to get behind the wheel.

020 7645 9595 It is therefore vital that hauliers are aware of the for more condition and ensure they protect themselves, to avoid any information. legal issues should a driver be involved in an accident. n

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