Many people don’t realize how dangerous drowsy or fatigued driving is. While alcohol-impaired driving is (appropriately) recognized and vilified as irresponsible and highly risky, too few understand that lack of sleep can lead to nearly the same level of impairment as driving drunk.

Unfortunately, drowsy driving is a problem in the United States, and it is especially prevalent among commercial truck drivers. While there are many reasons why truck drivers are more likely to be drowsy/fatigued behind the wheel, perhaps the most common reason is a medical condition known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

What is sleep apnea and how common is it?

Sleep apnea is a medical condition in which someone regularly stops breathing while asleep, leading to very poor quality sleep and a host of long-term health issues. There are two primary causes of sleep apnea. The first is a problem wherein the brain doesn’t reliably send signals to the breathing muscles to keep working during sleep. This is called “central sleep apnea.”

The second occurs due to blockage of a person’s airways. During sleep, the throat muscles and soft palate relax and collapse, temporarily blocking the airway for five to 10 seconds at a time. This is obstructive sleep apnea, and it is often the result of obesity and a sedentary lifestyle (both problems associated with truck driving). There is also a third type of sleep apnea that combines aspects of the first two.

Statistics show that among the general population, only about 4 percent of people suffer from sleep apnea. Among commercial truck drivers, however, the number could be as high as 35 percent. Truck drivers with OSA could wake up feeling exhausted even after 10 hours of sleep. And in this state of exhaustion, they are up to 250 percent more likely to be involved in a truck accident.

What to do if you’ve been injured

Truck accidents often result in serious injuries, paralysis or death for occupants of smaller vehicles. But most accidents are preventable and can be attributed to negligence. Even in cases where sleep apnea and the resulting fatigue led to a crash, the driver and his or her employer may be at fault.

Obstructive sleep apnea is very treatable with changes in sleeping position and the use of medical devices to improve air flow during sleep. It can sometimes even be cured through common-sense measures like losing weight.

Truck drivers and their employers need to understand that treating OSA is a safety and job performance issue. When it results in truck accident, it is a legal liability.

If you or a loved one has been harmed in a preventable truck accident, sleep apnea may have been an underlying cause. Please discuss your case with an attorney who can help you investigate the crash and better understand your legal options.