I have a question for you. If you have sleep apnea, can you mix a small amount of alcohol (less than would make you legally drunk in most states) and still drive your car? It turns out that this question became the basis of a study just released Down Under… Australia for short.
A group of researchers wanted to know if any amount of alcohol or sleep reduction would affect the simulated driving performance in patients with untreated obstructive sleep apnea.
They tested two groups on a driving simulator under three different driving conditions. 38 of the participants had untreated obstructive sleep apnea. 20 were healthy and had been screened for any sleep disorders and served as the control group. (They would have used mice, but their feet could not reach the foot pedals.)
They wanted to study if the participants swerved under different driving conditions, crashed the simulator or had in loss in their breaking reaction time. Some of the participants were allowed to complete their normal sleep cycles. Others were restricted to 4-hours of sleep, some given enough vodka to get their blood level up to 0.05% (not enough to make you legally drunk in most if not all states in the U.S.) The study did not mention if the drinking session included dining and dancing, but my guess is that was not a benefit of the study.
The study found that patients with obstructive sleep apnea swerved more than their counterparts in the control group and as they put more time on the simulator, they swerved even more. And then things really got worse.
The OSA group really started to swerve their simulators after being deprived of sleep and when they were given vodka. When the OSA group was allowed to sleep only 4-hours, they were 32% more likely to crash than the healthy group who were deprive of sleep for the same 4-hours. It gets worse…
The OSA group crashed 10% more often that the control group even with the OSA group had a full night’s sleep. After drinking their vodka, the OSA group crashed their simulators 21% more than the healthy group. That all makes sense, but the greatest predictor of crashes was not the swerving or the delayed reaction time to applying the brakes. The greatest predictor was prolonged eye closure longer than 2-seconds and “microsleeps”… longer than 2-seconds.
Conclusion: Patients with OSA are more vulnerable than healthy persons to the effects of alcohol consumption and sleep restriction on various driving performance variables.