Man speaks out about horrific crash after falling asleep while driving

David Savieti doesn’t remember much before he blacked out behind the wheel and smashed head on into another car while driving home from work.

But the trauma of that horrific accident still haunts the 39-year-old today.

“Sometimes I just get these flashes of the steering wheel … I cried for the woman in the other car that I hurt and the pain that I caused,” Savieti told Herald on Sunday.

At the time of the crash, the then Auckland City Hospital staffer had no idea he had obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), a medical condition causing airflow blockage triggering poor quality sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness.

If it wasn’t for his condition, the crash likely would never have happened.

Savieti was convicted of careless driving causing injury in the Auckland District Court in 2018, and sentenced to 80 hours’ community work and ordered to pay reparation of $665.50.

The woman in the other car suffered serious, long-term injuries.

A later appeal to the High Court in 2019 was dismissed.

“The first lawyer I saw wanted me to plead guilty straight away, even though I didn’t intend to hurt anyone. The prosecutor treated me like I was stupid for not seeing a doctor about my snoring but I had no idea it was a medical condition,” Savieti said.

He spoke to the Herald on Sunday after the Court of Appeal released its judgment earlier this week finding that the evidence did not establish beyond reasonable doubt that Savieti was driving carelessly.

As result, his conviction was set aside.

Savieti wanted to share his story to help raise awareness about OSA and encourage those who snore excessively and who may be obese to visit a doctor.

“Sleep clinics can test you to see how many times you wake up at night … especially, Māori and Pacific Islanders we just live our life and think it’s normal but the reality is it can get worse and worse.”

On the night of the accident, Savieti had just finished his shift at Auckland City Hospital, where he worked as a storeman. He was on his way home in Mt Roskill when he crashed.

“I just remember coming around a corner and blacking out. All of a sudden I was lying under the steering wheel wondering how I got there.”

Meanwhile, emergency crews rushed to the scene.

“I was trying to get up but people were pushing me back down … the firemen had to cut me out of my car and put me in an ambulance,” Savieti said.

“I honestly didn’t see the other car and then I saw a guy near it and I just remember screaming ‘is there someone in the other car’ and people running towards the other car, it felt like a long time but it was probably only a couple of minutes.”

Savieti was taken to the place he worked, but this time as a patient.

“They didn’t have a neck brace big enough for my neck, so it was the most painful ride to the hospital.”

He was in and out on consciousness with broken ribs and deep cuts through his head. While in hospital, he suffered cardiac arrest after pain medication caused his heart rate to drop dramatically, he said.

That’s when doctors was discovered Savieti had OSA. He spent a week in the critical care unit before he was discharged.

Now, he sleeps with a machine that helps him to breath.

“My first night after using the machine, I woke up the next morning and felt like another person. I didn’t realise how tired I was before that, because it had just been normal to me.”

Before his diagnosis, and without realising, Savieti had been waking up about 50 times a night.

Respiratory and sleep specialist Dr Andrew Veale – who gave evidence on Savieti’s behalf – said there were a number of factors that indicated Savieti would have had no concern about driving. In particular that Savieti claimed he had never crashed previously after falling asleep.

Veale told the Herald he was glad Savieti’s conviction had been set aside.

“I thought it was inappropriate that he was convicted in the initial court case.”

He had his driver’s licence taken off him for a year, after the first court ruling.

Veale, from the NZ Respiratory and Sleep Institute, described OSA as a disorder where muscles in the throat relax, leading to a complete obstruction of the throat, prohibiting breathing. In response, the brain is woken – or goes through an arousal – and breathing is restored briefly, before the process begins again.

Savieti’s OSA was very severe, which meant he stopped breathing or partially stopped breathing when sleeping 114 times per hour – almost two times per minute, Veale said.

The average person takes 960 to 1200 breaths per hour while sleeping.

About 9 per cent of people between 30 and 60 years of age suffer from OSA. The severity of Savieti’s case is uncommon but not rare.

OSA was more common in Māori and Polynesian men, Veale said.

“After that, I couldn’t drive at night. For ages, I always tried to get home before it was dark,” Savieti said.

He wishes he could take back that tragic night but he can’t. Instead, he hopes his story will help prevent other accidents.

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