How Sleep Apnea Can Cause Fatal Accidents

Continuing our video series, Dr. Jerome Hester explains “How Sleep Apnea Can Cause Fatal Accidents.”

Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board found that two separate fatal train accidents, one in New York and one in New Jersey, were likely the result of untreated obstructive sleep apnea. It is well known that untreated sleep apnea will lead to fatigue, which is not always obvious to the individual suffering from the disease. The government has put in restrictions on the diagnosis and testing for this disease among train engineers, pilots and even captains of large vessels. However, these guidelines are not always followed. This has led to other issues where sleep deprivation, and in many cases, sleep apnea itself have been blamed for these accidents.

This includes the Exxon Valdez, the incident involving a large tanker hitting the Bay Bridge here in the San Francisco Bay Area leading to a large oil spill, and even airplane accidents leading to fatalities. As worrisome as all these are, it brings to light a much more common and probably imminent danger to the rest of us, which is the same issues that lead to fatigue playing a role in these accidents leads to a significant role in automobile accidents. It has been estimated that an individual with even mild to moderate sleep apnea has somewhere in the realm of four to seven times the baseline risk of being involved in a fatal car accident. This means that that individual who is fatigued behind the wheel can cause the death not only of themselves but of other innocent individuals as well.

Attempts to regulate this have not been easy for governmental agencies. Therefore, I believe all of us should understand that if there are signs and symptoms of sleep apnea, that not only should one pursue these for the risks such as heart disease, stroke and just the fatigue itself, but also the fact that this provides a significant risk to others on the road who are innocent. Once again, the recent episodes bring to light any incident that shows us that sleep apnea or sleep deprivation may be there should be considered a true risk factor when operating any kind of motor vehicle.