Fatal fall-asleep road accidents

Have you heard of the recent conviction of the Tasmanian Director of Public Prosecutions, Tim Ellis? He was convicted by the Hobart Magistrates Court of causing death of a young woman by negligent driving during a car crash.

The incident occurred in March 2013 at Lovely Banks in the Midlands area of Tasmania.

The Magistrate accepted evidence that Tim Ellis’ vehicle was travelling -1.5 kilometres on the wrong side of the road before the head on collision occurred.

There was also evidence of Ellis’ history of sleep apnoea and the absence of any skid marks on the section of the road leading to the point of collision.

Although the absence of skid marks was relied upon by Ellis’ lawyers to support the argument that he was asleep at the wheel the Magistrate found that this evidence could also support the argument that Ellis was not concentrating or that he had insufficient time to react.

Ellis intends to appeal the conviction. Understandably the young woman’s bereaving family are unhappy with Ellis’ decision to appeal. They ask for Ellis to be stripped of his position as DPP. In response to his defence that he was asleep at the wheel because of his sleep apnoea they argue that if he knew that he had sleep apnoea then he should not have been driving.

There are many drivers who suffer from sleep apnoea, particularly truck drivers. A study published in the Australian Medical Journal (2003) has found that 20% of road accidents are due to driver fatigue and that drivers with sleep apnoea are 2 – 7 times more likely to have a fall asleep incident at the wheel. But even if they are aware of their sleep disorder – and many are-not – they will not have any warning of falling asleep.

The AMA study has found that only those who have received treatment for their sleep apnoea are aware of the severity of the condition. So there is much ignorance amongst sleep apnoea sufferers of both the existence and the severity of their condition.

I have, in the past, fallen asleep whilst driving. I had no prior warning that I was about to fall asleep. It overcame me quickly. A sixth sense, or adrenalin rush, made me start awake. I recall taking immediate evasive action and winding down the window as quickly as possible to let the cold night air revive my oxygen deprived brain.

I have some sympathy for the argument that if you knew that you have sleep apnoea you should not be driving. But it must be appreciated that sleep apnoea asserts itself mostly at night when the person is trying to sleep. Quality sleep often eludes the sleeper as s/he will suddenly stop breathing – sometimes for up to a minute or more. The effect of this is to deprive the brain and other essential organs of nourishing oxygen. Depending on the duration and frequency of the apnoeas experienced during the night a person may or may not fall asleep during their waking hours through the next day or night.

See “Fatal distraction: a case series of fatal fall-asleep road accidents and their medico legal outcomes” by Desai, AV, Grunstein, RR, Ellis E & Wheatley, JR 2003 Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 178 (8), pp. 396-399

 

 

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