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Wednesday, 20 February, 2002, 12:50 GMT
Experts study risks of dozy drivers
Sleep apnoea affects an estimated 40,000 in Scotland
Researchers examining the problem of drivers falling asleep at the wheel are hoping to flag down thousands of Scotland's bus drivers for a study.

Experts at Edinburgh University believe that dozing off on the roads has overtaken drink-driving as a cause of fatal accidents.

Now researchers are seeking the help of 3,000 bus drivers as they study a condition known as sleep apnoea.

Professor Neil Douglas
Professor Neil Douglas: "Catastrophic" effects
It is estimated that as many as 40,000 people north of the border could be suffering from the condition.

Obstructive sleep apnoea is a serious condition in which airflow from the nose and mouth to the lungs is restricted during sleep.

Sufferers snore loudly and often feel sleepy during the daytime because they are repeatedly woken up at night.

Professor Neil Douglas, who is leading the Edinburgh University project, said the condition - which can be treated with a simple device costing 250 - affects about 2% of middle aged men.

He explained that bus drivers were chosen for the study because they tended to be middle aged men.

Safe drivers

Prof Douglas said the Selby rail crash, which was caused by a motorist falling asleep at the wheel, was an example of the "catastrophic" effects of tiredness while driving.

"At least 20% of major road accidents in Scotland are caused by people falling asleep at the wheel and there's no reason why professional drivers should be immune," he said.

"Sleep apnoea has already overtaken excessive alcohol consumption as a major cause of road accidents.

Buses in Edinburgh
Bus drivers will be given questionnaires
"It is our belief that the research results will have a major impact on the future road safety of this country and could determine whether professional drivers should have some form of screening for their own safety as well as that of their passengers."

However, there was no suggestion that bus drivers were any more likely to fall asleep at the wheel than other professional drivers.

"Bus drivers are extremely safe drivers," said Prof Douglas.

"But what we wanted to do was find out whether we can make them even safer by identifying in advance those who are likely to fall asleep at the wheel - either because they are not getting enough sleep at night or because they have the condition called sleep apnoea."

Falling asleep

The drivers will be sent a questionnaire by the research team in an effort to identify any who could be suffering from the condition.

"We will then take it further so that we can avoid them falling asleep at the wheel and having the risk of killing themselves and potentially large numbers of other people at the same time," said the professor.

He added that he wanted to see tiredness at the wheel being treated as seriously as drink-driving.

The three-year research project is being backed by the Transport and General Workers' Union.

BBC Scotland's David Nisbet reports
"The researchers believe a sleeping disorder leads to daytime drowsiness"
Professor Neil Douglas
"Bus drivers are extremely safe drivers"
See also:

18 Jan 02 | Health
Cutting sleep disorder danger
27 Dec 01 | Health
'Snore box' spots sleep trouble
13 Dec 01 | England
Driver fatigue: A big killer
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