Sleep Apnea and Drowsy Driving

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is a serious medical condition that commonly leads to excessive daytime sleepiness, which can impair your ability to drive. In the United States, drowsy driving has become a major issue – according to the National Safety Council (NSC), more than 6,400 fatal drowsy driving crashes occur each year.


What Is Drowsy Driving?

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and we’re here to highlight a major problem that falls into this category: “drowsy driving,” or operating a motor vehicle while feeling fatigued or sleepy. Driving “drowsy” can often be caused by untreated sleep disorders such as Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). The danger associated with it is due to sometimes tragic consequences.

In terms of driving after drinking alcohol, drowsiness can actually increase the effect of even low alcohol amounts. In terms of similar effects as alcohol (yet not actually imbibing), studies have shown that going too long without restful sleep can impair your driving ability the same way as indulging in too much alcohol can. Remaining awake for at least 18 hours is the equivalent to a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%, while remaining awake for at least 24 hours is comparative to a BAC of 0.10% – higher than the legal limit (0.08% BAC) in the United States.

The Impact and Warning Signs of Drowsy Driving

Drowsy driving not only poses a health and safety risk to yourself, but also to others on the road. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), 21% of fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver, and individuals are three times more likely to be in a car crash if they are tired. According to the National Sleep Foundation, alarmingly, driving while drowsy is common: more than half of U.S. adult drivers admit to consistently getting behind the wheel while feeling drowsy, and approximately 37% admit to having fallen asleep behind the wheel. Further, an estimated 13% admit to falling asleep behind the wheel in the past month.

Falling asleep while driving is extremely dangerous, but even simply experiencing sleepiness without actually falling asleep affects your ability to drive safely. Drowsiness slows your reaction time, makes you less attentive, and negatively affects your ability to make quick decisions. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM), the warning signs of drowsy driving include but are not limited to:

  • Drifting from your lane
  • Missing your exit
  • Hitting a “rumble strip,” or road shoulder
  • Difficulty remembering the last few miles driven
  • Yawning or blinking frequently
  • Daydreaming or wandering thoughts
  • Nodding off
  • Getting too close to cars in front of you
  • Feeling restless and irritable

All age groups can experience drowsy driving, and although many drowsy driving incidents occur between midnight and 6 a.m., daytime incidents also happen. It’s important to note that when it comes to accidents and fatalities caused by drowsy driving, these don’t only take place at night.

How To Prevent Drowsy Driving

Your body needs adequate and restful sleep on a daily basis in order to function properly. The more hours of sleep you miss, the harder it is for you to think and perform as well as you would when well-rested. Lack of sleep affects coordination, judgement, and reaction time while driving – also known as cognitive impairment. So, how do you ensure you’re not driving drowsy?

The most obvious answer? Make sure you’re getting enough sleep! Most adults need at least 7 hours of sleep per day, while adolescents require closer to 8 hours. Avoid consuming alcohol or medications that make you sleepy if you have to drive, and you can also work on developing good sleeping habits to achieve consistent and adequate rest.

Sometimes, an untreated sleep disorder such as Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) can be the culprit behind excessive daytime sleepiness, even if you do make sure you log enough hours for sleeping each night. It’s so important to diagnose and treat your OSA – however severe it may be. When left untreated, sleep apnea can not only can lead to drowsy driving accidents, but can also significantly increase the risk of health issues including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and pulmonary hypertension and stroke.

For mild to moderate Obstructive Sleep Apnea, a mouthguard like an oral appliance, made precisely to fit your mouth shape and your teeth, can help you get a comfortable night’s sleep and effectively treat your OSA. Talk to your sleep physician or family practitioner about seeing a sleep dentist and getting fitted for a custom and comfortable SomnoMed device – like our SomnoDent® Avantthat moves your jaw and tongue forward and opens up your airway while you sleep.

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Drowsy Driving Prevention Week®

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