Meg Munn, MP for Sheffield Heeley, has been named November’s ‘Parliamentarian of the Month’ for her road safety work in Parliament. She has been raising awareness of the risks of drivers falling asleep at the wheel resulting from undiagnosed sleep apnoea, a condition associated with obesity, which is a risk factor of long haul commercial driving. She has successfully brought together a team of campaigners including affected constituents and prominent researchers in the field, to lobby the Government for a change in regulations.
Meg’s constituent, Seb Schmoller, brought the issue of undiagnosed sleep apnoea to her attention early in 2008 following the death of his nephew Toby Tweddell. On 8 August 2006, Toby, 25, set off to work along the M62 near Liverpool. On the way, a lorry ploughed into his car, and as a result Toby died.
Colin Wrighton, the lorry driver who killed Toby, had fallen asleep at the wheel of his vehicle. Wrighton had seen his doctor just five months earlier complaining of tiredness. Tests to find out whether he was diabetic returned negative, and he was told he was probably suffering from stress. The medical profession failed to diagnose sleep apnoea, an easily treatable condition, which resulted in Wrighton crashing his lorry and killing Toby.
At the inquest into Toby’s death, the Coroner took the unusual step of issuing a rule 43 report to the Lord Chancellor’s Department calling for the toughening of the licensing regime for commercial drivers, who are particularly likely to develop sleep apnoea. The Department for Transport responded that current regulation was adequate and they had no intention to review regulations.
Meg began to look into the problem of undiagnosed sleep apnoea and was shocked to find that nearly one in six lorry drivers may have sleep apnoea .
Meg brought together key academics and doctors such as Professor Jim Horne and Dr Louise Reyner from the sleep research centre at Loughborough University; Dr John Shneerson, from Papworth hospital; Dr Dev Banerjee from Birmingham Heartlands hospital and Dr Stephen Bianchi from the Royal Hallamshire hospital in Sheffield. Together they set out to find the most effective way to tackle the issue.
The group identified three key campaign points:
- Regular screening of commercial drivers as part of the licensing process to pick up undiagnosed cases automatically.
- A legal requirement for commercial operators to have sleep apnoea screening processes in place.
- Raising awareness of sleep apnoea and commercial driving in the business and medical professions.
In May 2009, Meg was able to secure an on the issue of the widespread under diagnosis of sleep apnoea in commercial drivers, and she used the opportunity to highlight both how widespread the problem was and the positive steps that the Government could take to tackle the problem. The Road Safety Minister subsequently agreed to meet with Meg and key people involved with the campaign.
Meg met with Paul Clark on 13 October. She took along Toby’s uncle Seb, his father Nic Tweddell and fiancée Jenny Crisp as well as one of the sleep disorder experts from her campaign group, Dr Stephen Bianchi.
Meg challenged the minister to implement some straightforward changes to the DVLA medical examination report form. Drivers must complete this form to show employers that they are safe to drive. Meg pointed out that the questions on the form designed to identify sleep apnoea (‘Does the applicant have sleep apnoea syndrome?’ and ‘Is there any other medical condition causing excessive daytime sleepiness?’) would not identify a driver with undiagnosed sleep apnoea as they ask about the condition and not the symptoms. The campaign group recommends that the driver’s Body Mass Index be calculated on the form with a warning that there is a higher incidence of sleep apnoea among obese people.
Meg also pointed out that the accompanying information to help complete the form is misleading. It stated, that ‘at least three in every thousand men’ have sleep apnoea, yet among commercial drivers the incidence is probably nearer to fifteen in every 100 . Later in 2009 this was amended to read ‘four in every one hundred’ have sleep apnoea.