DRIVERS prone to falling asleep at the wheel pose dilemmas for doctors and the law – as well as presenting a risk to public safety, according to a leading medic.

Dr Kirsty Harrison, senior medical advisor for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), has told a Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) conference that education is key to ensuring that sleepy drivers are prevented from causing harm to other road users, including cyclists and pedestrians.

According to guidance for medical professions, those with respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) do not have to tell the DVLA about their condition, unless they suffer from cough syncope, disabling dizziness, fainting or loss of consciousness.

“Far too regularly we see the tragic consequences that sleepiness can have on public road safety,” said Harrison.

“There are relevant laws and guidance in place, as well as the duty of drivers and their medical advisers to manage common dilemmas.

“Education and information on these issues empowers the driver or patient and is paramount in reducing the risk that the sleepy driver poses to public road safety.”

Harrison told her audience that the latest figures showed there were more than 48 million driving licences in Britain and almost 1.5m Group 2 licences for buses or lorries. In the year ending last June there were 1710 road deaths.

Because sleepiness was seen as a factor in a high number and severity of accidents, it and fatigue had been studied extensively by researchers across the world.

However, she added: “Whilst there is some variance in the research undertaken in this area, the growing body of evidence suggests the reported accident figures underestimate the problem of driver fatigue.”

She said males aged between 18 and 30 were more likely to fall asleep at the wheel when driving late at night and, on drinking and driving, she said: “Although no one should drink and drive at any time, alcohol consumed in the afternoon maybe twice as potent in terms of producing sleepiness and driving impairment as the same amount taken in the evening.”

The dilemma for doctors was assessing whether their patient was “likely to be a source of danger when driving”.

In such cases the patient should be advised about DVLA standards and the law, as well as the implications in terms of road safety, possible offences and insurance issues - and, added Harrison: “Advise the patient that you will be obliged to disclose the relevant information to the DVLA if he continues to drive due to the serious risks posed to himself and others.”

Dr Iain McLellan from the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), spoke on behalf of the Border and Regions Airway Training Hub (BREATH), a partnership between the Smooth Muscle Research Centre, Ireland, Queens University in Belfast and the UWS.

He added: “BREATH, which is funded by the EU Health and Life Sciences Programme, has established a world-class cluster of researchers who will help address the causes, treatment and potential prevention of COPD.

“In 2011 the annual economic burden of COPD across the EU was estimated at approximately €141.4 billion (£126bn).

“Throughout BREATH’s five-year project, over 30 researchers and doctoral students will work together not only to better understand COPD but to raise awareness of the disease to help encourage preventative measures and timely treatment and disease management.”

RCPE president, Professor Derek Bell, added: “The research that our expert guest speakers have been undertaking is an excellent contribution to our understanding of respiratory conditions.

“I hope that our delegates, many of whom treat patients with breathing difficulties on a daily basis, will take some important lessons away from the conference.”