The documentary Sleepless in America on the National Geographic Channel starts with the powerful story of a man who lost his wife and two of his children after they were struck by a driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel.
Drowsy driving is equivalent to drunk driving in terms of impairment and risk of accident. However, no one thinks drunk driving is a good idea, but school schedules and heavy homework loads are structured to ensure that many teens are driving drowsy all of the time. Car accidents are the most common cause of death in teenagers.Yet another study has shown that later school start times reduce the risk of car accidents in teens.
A group of researchers led by Dr. Robert Varona published an important paper in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. They studied two adjacent counties in Virginia, Chesterfield and Henrico. The counties were similar in the make up of people living in them based on census data and the make up of teenagers attending the school. The main difference between the two communities was school start times: Chesterfield County (CC) schools start at 7:20 A.M., and Henrico County (HC) schools start at 8:45 A.M.. The students with the later school start times (HC) had a crash rate of 37.9/1,000 drivers/year. (This means that out of 1,000 drivers age 16–18 years old, 37.9 will have an accident). The students with earlier school start times (CC) had a rate of 48.8/1,000 drivers/year, which is a 28.7% increase in the risk of car accidents. Accidents were most likely to occur on the commute to and from school:
When I see teenagers in Sleep Clinic, for any reason, I discuss the risks of drowsy driving at length with them. Specifically:
- Sleepy drivers are not good judges of how impaired they are.
- Even small amounts of alcohol greatly increase the risk of car crashes in drowsy drivers.
- Rolling down the window, turning up the radio, or (God forbid) talking on the phone DO NOT help keep you awake.
- The only two interventions which may reduce the risk of a crash are
- Avoiding driving when drowsy altogether
- Taking a brief nap
- Drinking a caffeinated beverage
- Note that the best strategy may be a “caffeine nap” which entails pulling into a gas station, drinking a small coffee, then trying to sleep for 30 minutes.
Imagine if the school was giving kids a drink of alcohol every day before sending them out on the road. There would be a massive outcry. This is essentially what many school districts are doing with inhumanely early school start times. if the purpose of school are to educate our teenagers and keep them safe, why do we persistent with schedules that increase the risk of injury and death?
Further information is available here:
- The National Sleep Foundations’s site Drowsy Driving has lots of terrific information on this problem, including causes and countermeasures.
- Kyla Wahlstrom has been a leader in this area. She was part of the group which moved school start time later in Minneapolis in the 90s, and has written extensively on this topic; she published an extensive report entitled “Examining the Impact of Later High School Start Times on the Health and Academic Performance of High School Students: A Multi-Site Study“
Even if you do not have teenagers who drive in your household, there are sleep deprived teens in your community and this affects your safety as well. Are you a teenager? A parent? An educator? Any thoughts you have on sleep and safety in teenagers are welcome below.