A new blood test could soon be available that will determine whether drivers who crash their car are impaired through a lack of sleep.
According to The Guardian, the move could pave the way to new legislation against tired motorists and their employers.
Research funded by the Australian Government Office of Road Safety may be key for new laws which would potentially see people penalised and prosecuted for driving in the wrong condition.
The report in the Guardian quoted Prof Steven Lockley, a sleep expert at Harvard medical school, who advises Nasa on sleep safety, as saying: “There has to be a system to check whether someone has had enough sleep, because they could be putting other people’s lives at risk.”
Wales Online reports that Prof Clare Anderson of Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia, has been leading the development of the blood test. She said: “When you look at the major killers on the road, alcohol is one of them, speeding is another, and fatigue is one of them.
“But even though the solution to fatigue is quite simple, which is to get more sleep, our capacity to manage it is impaired because we don’t have tools to be able to monitor it like we do with alcohol.”
According to the Guardian, her team identified five biomarkers in blood that can detect whether somebody has been awake for 24 hours or more with greater than 99% accuracy.
Prof Anderson added: “They are really strongly related to how long somebody’s been awake, and they’re consistent across individuals. Some of them are lipids, some of them are produced in the gut, so they’re from different parts of the body – which is interesting, because sleep is implicated in a number of different health problems.
“But they are not metabolites that are involved in things like caffeine or anxiety or adrenaline, which could be affected if somebody has been involved in a motor vehicle crash.”
The Guardian said that follow-up studies in conditions that were closer to real-world situations indicated that the biomarkers can detect whether or not someone has slept. Anderson said: “We still get close to 90% accuracy at being able to detect sleep loss, which is pretty high considering all the things that are going on in people’s lives beyond just sleep.”
Further studies will look into whether the markers can determine exactly how much sleep someone has had. The Guardian’s report said that Prof Anderson believed a blood test that could be carried out alongside drug or alcohol tests, could be available within two years.
At first they would only be available in hospitals, with roadside tests coming later. Prof Shantha Rajaratnam, also from Monash University, said that would take around five years ‘with the right investment’. Any legislation would need to determine what is considered to be a minimum level of sleep, much like there is a legal threshold for alcohol consumption.
Prof Derk-Jan Dijk, the director of the Surrey Sleep Research centre, said: “[Legislation] is a scary concept for people, because so many sleep badly, but I think it is reasonable to compare it to drink-driving. If you haven’t slept for more than four hours you shouldn’t be at the wheel.”
Sonya Hurt, the chief executive of the Road Safety Trust, added: “Driver fatigue is a significant and serious issue. Government statistics show in 2021, 467 people were either killed or seriously injured in collisions where fatigue was noted as a contributory factor. Therefore, any work to reduce the impact of sleep deprivation is welcome as we strive to improve road safety and save lives.”
Prof Ashleigh Filtness, a driver fatigue expert for Road Safety GB, said: “There is already legislation stating that all drivers must be fit to drive their vehicles – alertness is no different than any other requirement for safe driving. Having a roadside test for fatigue would be a useful tool for enforcement.
“However, such a test would not preclude individual driver responsibility. Tiredness does not come on instantly, it’s a gradual build-up. It is essential to get enough sleep before driving and to be aware of peaks in tiredness – typically between 2-4pm and 2-6am.”
The UK Department for Transport said: “Drivers have a responsibility to ensure they are awake and alert on the road and should seek rest when feeling tired. The government is not considering this type of testing, but we always note new ideas to make our roads safer.”
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