Our law firm recently settled a wrongful death case against a large, multinational corporation who we alleged employed a driver who fell asleep at the wheel, causing a major collision. The driver of the defendant vehicle fit the classic description of someone suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, there are an estimated 20 million Americans who likely suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, with 80 to 90% of those going undiagnosed and untreated. These type of numbers are sobering when we ponder how many of these drivers are on the roads of our country on a daily basis.
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when your airway is blocked or narrowed during sleep because your throat muscles and tongue may relax more than normal. It also can result from being overweight, which allows excess soft fat tissue to thicken the wall of the windpipe making it harder to keep the opening patent. They can also even occur with the normal aging process which limits the brain’s ability to keep a person’s airway open during sleep. When obstructive sleep apnea occurs, airflow in the lungs is limited, which can cause a decrease in oxygen being delivered to various organs of the body. A common symptom of obstructive sleep apnea is loud snoring.
The body’s defensive mechanism when this occurs causes the brain to disturb the sleep pattern. Often, the brain helps by tightening the upper airway muscles and opening the windpipe until normal breathing starts. When this happens, it is often sounds like the person is gasping or choking. Studies have shown that people who suffer from the disorder can actually stop breathing for 10 or more seconds, hundreds of times a night. When this occurs, the sleepers’ heart rate can increase, the risk of high blood pressure, increase, as well as the risk for heart attack, stroke, and arrhythmias.
From a driver’s perspective, it also creates a more dangerous roadway. Those suffering from sleep apnea have a greater tendency to doze or actually fall asleep while actively driving. It seems to be even more prevalent in commercial big rig cases. The every day danger presented by those suffering from sleep apnea who are driving on the roads cannot be overstated. If you are involved in an auto collision, and are trying to determine the root cause of the collision, you must consider the possibility that the driver suffered from obstructive sleep apnea.