Did sleep disorder lead to A1 fatality?

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A 50-year-old man accused of causing death by dangerous driving following a fatal collision on the A1 in Northumberland claims that he was suffering from an undiagnosed sleep disorder at the time.

Gordon Soutar, 50, of Cairneyhill, Dunfermline, is standing trial this week at Newcastle Crown Court.

He denies causing death by dangerous driving and the alternative of causing death by careless driving.

It relates to an incident on the A1 to the south of Felton on the single-carriageway section on November 12, 2012.

At around 7.30am, Soutar’s white BMW was described as drifting into the northbound lane near to the bridge over the River Coquet, clipping a Citroen car before colliding head-on with a VW Caddy van.

The driver, Nigel Sowerby, 37, from Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, was killed.

However, Soutar says that he doesn’t remember anything of the journey – his usual Monday morning commute to work in Gosforth – south of Berwick.

On Tuesday, the court heard from Dr Tom Mackay, a sleep specialist and director of the sleep centre at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, who first saw Soutar in January 2013 before diagnosing him with obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome in April.

It involves the person involuntarily holding their breath for a number of seconds at a time while asleep before the brain realises and sparks the breathing process again. Importantly, it prevents the sufferer from being able to reach the crucial stages of deep sleep.

“It’s really akin to chronic sleep deprivation because they go through it night after night, week after week, month after month, even year after year, without realising it,” said Dr Mackay.

The condition can lead to what are known as micro-sleeps, when the person undergoes short periods of inattention – from fragments of a second to about ten seconds – and it is this that Soutar claims was happening during his drive.

There were a number of incidents reported by witnesses prior to the collision, which may or may not have involved Soutar’s vehicle, such as the car driving close up behind another vehicle before braking suddenly and the car pulling sharply in front of someone and then having to correct the manoeuvre and straddling the white line in the middle of the road.

Dr Mackay said that these incidents were consistent with going in and out of micro-sleeps, that is being unaware for a time and then becoming aware again and correcting the car.

But yesterday, another expert, Dr Chris Idzikowski, told the jury that he didn’t believe that micro-sleeps were a likely cause, saying that a series of micro-sleeps lasting the 40 minutes or so from Berwick to the collision site were likely to cause someone to fall asleep properly and that an accident would have occurred sooner.

He added that the precision of the overtaking manoeuvre just prior to the collision, in which witnesses reported Soutar overtaking four or five cars as he came onto the single-track section, and the lack of time between this and the subsequent ‘drift’ into the northbound lane ‘negates the possibility’ of micro-sleeps.

Under cross-examination, he conceded that he could not rule them out, but added: “If one is he went into a micro-sleep and 10 is he didn’t, I would say I was about a nine, because I can’t prove a 10.”

He also said that he found it ‘coincidental’ that there are no references or reports of Soutar suffering micro-sleeps prior to this incident.

The trial continues.