Sleep disorder caused by shift work may increase the risk of car crashes, study finds

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Working the night shift can seriously impact consumers’ well-being

Several recent studies have highlighted the long-term health risks associated with shift work -- especially overnight shifts. 

Now, researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia explored shift work sleep disorder, which is when shift workers have inconsistent sleeping patterns due to several nighttime disruptions. Their work revealed that these sleeping issues can make consumers more likely to be involved in a car accident. 

“In the past, researchers have studied sleep disorders primarily in a controlled environment, using test-tracks and driving simulators,” said researcher Praveen Edara. “Our study goes a step further by using actual observed crash and near-crash data from approximately 2,000 events occurring in six U.S. states. We’ve known for a while now that sleep disorders increase crash risk, but here we are able to quantify that risk using real-world crash data while accounting for confounding variables such as roadway and traffic characteristics.” 

Assessing crash risk

The researchers analyzed data from the Strategic Highway Research Program, which included information on nearly 2,000 crashes across six states. Study participants reported on their typical sleeping habits, their history with sleep issues like insomnia or sleep apnea, and their work experience. 

The researchers found that there was a clear link between those with shift work sleep disorder and an increased risk of car crashes. Participants with shift work sleep disorder were three times more likely to end up in a car wreck, which was higher than any other sleep condition. Comparatively, participants with sleep apnea or insomnia were 30% as likely to be in a car crash. 

“This discovery has many major implications, including the need to identify engineering counter-measures to help prevent these crashes from happening,” said Edara. “Such measures can include the availability of highway rest areas, roadside and in-vehicle messaging to improve a driver’s attention, and how to encourage drivers who may have a light-night work shift to take other modes of transportation, including public transit or ride-share services.” 

Because of the large number of consumers that do shift work and struggle with sleep, the researchers’ goal is to find a way to make the roads safer for all drivers. Moving forward, the team hopes to expand these findings and work with experts in the medical field to ensure the health and safety of all shift workers. 

“We want to partner with public health and medical professionals whose expertise is in sleep-related research to better understand why this is happening,” said Edara. “That will also allow us to explore what kind of countermeasures we can develop and test to improve the overall safety of these drivers and the other motorists around them."

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