Background and methods: Drowsiness and lack of concentration may contribute to traffic accidents. We conducted a case-control study of the relation between sleep apnea and the risk of traffic accidents. The case patients were 102 drivers who received emergency treatment at hospitals in Burgos or Santander, Spain, after highway traffic accidents between April and December 1995. The controls were 152 patients randomly selected from primary care centers in the same cities and matched with the case patients for age and sex. Respiratory polygraphy was used to screen the patients for sleep apnea at home, and conventional polysomnography was used to confirm the diagnosis. The apnea-hypopnea index (the total number of episodes of apnea and hypopnea divided by the number of hours of sleep) was calculated for each participant.
Results: The mean age of the participants was 44 years; 77 percent were men. As compared with those without sleep apnea, patients with an apnea-hypopnea index of 10 or higher had an odds ratio of 6.3 (95 percent confidence interval, 2.4 to 16.2) for having a traffic accident. This relation remained significant after adjustment for potential confounders, such as alcohol consumption, visual-refraction disorders, body-mass index, years of driving, age, history with respect to traffic accidents, use of medications causing drowsiness, and sleep schedule. Among subjects with an apnea-hypopnea index of 10 or more, the risk of an accident was higher among those who had consumed alcohol on the day of the accident than among those who had not.
Conclusions: There is a strong association between sleep apnea, as measured by the apnea-hypopnea index, and the risk of traffic accidents.