Brake's parliamentary reception on sleep apnoea

Julie Townsend speech – parliamentary reception on sleep apnoea, 20 July 2010

I’d like to start by telling you the story of Toby Tweddell.

Toby was driving to work in Liverpool on the 8th August, four years ago in 2006. It was about 8.30 in the morning when he pulled up on the M62 behind a queue of traffic.

Out of nowhere, a large truck hit Toby’s car from behind, shunting him forward and into the pick up truck in front. Toby’s car was so badly crushed that it took emergency services an hour to cut him free from the wreckage.

He was rushed to hospital, but after five hours in the operating theatre, he was pronounced dead.

He was just 25.

It was found that the truck driver, 54 year old Colin Wrighton, had fallen asleep at the wheel. He was later diagnosed with the common sleep disorder obstructive sleep apnoea – as this was undiagnosed at the time of the death a charge of causing death by dangerous driving was dropped, and a year later the coroner returned a verdict of accidental death.

Just two weeks before the crash that killed Toby, Colin Wrighton had been to his doctor for the second time to complain about excessive tiredness. The doctor had failed to spot the signs of sleep apnoea, so the condition went untreated.

In the case of Toby Tweddell, there is an obvious link between sleep apnoea and Toby’s tragic death. In many other cases that link is not so clear. We simply don’t know exactly how many needless deaths and injuries are caused each year as a result of sleep apnoea.

However, research suggests that this is a huge problem on our roads, and one that must be addressed without delay.

An estimated 265 deaths are caused each year by tired drivers – that’s five every week. But we suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg. Recent independent research indicates that a horrifying one in six drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel.

It’s also estimated that as many as 700,000 people in the UK suffer from sleep apnoea, which disrupts sleep and causes acute tiredness. Sleep apnoea is treatable. Yet many, perhaps most people, seem to be ignorant of what it is, and how to spot the symptoms.

Those most likely to suffer from sleep apnoea are middle aged men who are overweight – a profile that a large proportion of truck drivers fit in to. It’s thought that up to one in six truck drivers could be suffering from severe sleep apnoea and requiring immediate treatment – that’s about 80,000 truck drivers who are ticking timebombs, with the potential to cause catastrophe on our roads. In simulated driving tests, sleep apnoea sufferers score worse in terms of hazard awareness and reaction times than people who are drunk.

Brake is urging policy makers to take urgent action, to prevent these ticking timebombs going off. To help those thousands of people suffering from sleep apnoea to understand their condition, to get treated, and to put an end to it. To stop more people like Toby having their lives needlessly cut short, causing unimaginable grief and trauma to family and friends.

We want to see Government investment in awareness campaigns, especially aimed at professional drivers, so they understand the tell-tale signs of sleep apnoea. We want a requirement for the National Institute for Clinical Excellence to publish clinical guidelines on the management of sleep apnoea and similar disorders. And we want drivers to be screened before they get their licence, and regular medical screening of professional drivers.

These measures require investment, but it seems obvious that sleep apnoea must be a huge economic drain, affecting the productivity of thousands of workers, as well as leading to costly and tragic deaths and injuries on our roads.

We are making these calls to action in memory of Toby Tweddell – and we hope that we have your support in making them happen.  

To the parliamentarians in the room, we’re urging you to sign an EDM calling for action on sleep apnoea (we’re collecting signatures at this reception) and we’re also urging you to push this issue within parliament – we need to see further debates to maintain pressure on the Government to act. And please do consider how you can raise awareness in your constituency as well, such as by working directly with local employers.

To the supportive organisations attending this event, please do come and talk to us about how you can help. It’s vital that we work together to secure decisive action on this important issue. Thank you.

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