We expect a lot from our high schoolers these days. Many high schools across the country start as early as 7:00 a.m., requiring students to wake up by 6:00 a.m. or earlier. They spend up to eight hours in school and then many go straight to an after school activity such as sports, band, or a job. By the time they get home and do homework, students are not going to bed until midnight or later, giving them an insufficient five or six hours of sleep a night. Researchers are learning just how much sleep deprivation among teens is affecting their ability to drive safely.
Drowsy Driving Is a Problem for Everyone
According to the National Sleep Foundation, ten percent of all drivers report having fallen asleep at the wheel in the previous year. In one out of every eight crashes resulting in hospitalization and one in every six fatal highway crashes, drowsy driving was the cause. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that more than 70 million Americans are sleep deprived or suffer from a sleep disorder. Being awake for 18 hours and then driving is similar to trying to drive with a blood alcohol content of .08, which is illegal. This means there are a lot of impaired drivers on the road every day.
Teens Bring Added Risks to Drowsy Driving
In order to drive safely, a teenager needs nine hours of sleep each night. When a teen stays up until midnight and gets up for school at 6:00 a.m., she's three hours short of getting enough sleep so that her driving ability isn't impaired by fatigue. With teenagers, fatigued driving is even more dangerous than with adults, because you're adding drowsiness to a lack of experience behind the wheel.
The results can be deadly. According to statistics cited by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, teens who sleep less than eight hours a night are one-third more likely to crash than those who sleep eight hours or more. The majority of fatigue-related crashes are caused by drivers under the age of 25, most of whom are male.
How Do We Address This Problem?
The bottom line is that teenagers need more sleep than they're getting. Parents understand that it's difficult to establish a consistent bedtime for their teens given their busy schedules and need for independence from parental rules.
However, there are some things parents can do to help their teens get more sleep and to prevent them from driving while drowsy, including the following:
- Establish a no-electronics (phone, TV, or computer) after 9 p.m. rule and enforce it.
- Encourage an after-school nap as long as it's before 5 p.m.
- Support your teen in starting homework as soon as he gets home from school.
- Utilize after-school study halls, if offered.
- Provide dinner before 7 p.m.
- Don't stock any caffeinated beverages, such as pop or energy drinks, and discourage your teen from drinking them outside of the home after 5 p.m.
- If your teen consistently doesn't get enough sleep, don't allow him to drive to school. Give him a ride or make him take the bus.
How Can Schools Help?
At the root of the problem of teenager fatigue in many communities are early school start times. Teens are ruled by a biological clock that does not favor being awake early in the morning. In fact, teenagers are naturally night owls, meaning they would be more alert to learn in school—and drive safely—with a 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. school day than a 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. day. There are many efforts underway across the country to make this change happen, but it probably won’t happen for your 17-year-old before he graduates from high school. Some studies have found that delaying school start times can result in a nearly 17 percent decrease in teen car accidents. To keep your teen and others on the road safe, make increased sleep a priority, no matter what it takes.
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