by Dr. Jana Price
Senior Human Performance Investigator
National Transportation Safety Board Office of Highway Safety
As young people’s schedules become busier and busier, it’s easy for sleep to fall off their priority list. Getting plenty of sleep helps youth complete tasks more efficiently, think clearly and creatively all day long, and stay alert while driving.
Although people generally recognize that sleep plays a significant role in ensuring they’re safe behind the wheel, many still admit to driving while fatigued. A recent AAA Foundation study found that 96 percent of drivers consider fatigued driving to be a serious threat and unacceptable behavior; however, nearly 3 in 10 of these same drivers admitted to driving drowsy. We believe that young drivers can avoid drowsiness if they better understand the importance of sleep, a sleep routine, and sleep debt.
Sleep is necessary for health, safety, and well-being. It helps the brain prepare for the upcoming day and allows new neural pathways to form that improve learning and memory. How much sleep do young drivers need? According to the National Sleep Foundation, teens ages 14 to 17 need 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night.
When people don’t get enough quality sleep, they begin to accumulate “sleep debt.” This can result from a late night of studying, getting up early for sports practice, or fragmenting sleep by using a cell phone during the night. Sleep debt accumulates over time and, ultimately, can affect a person’s ability to think and perform, negatively affecting tasks like driving. Sleep debt is also linked to high-risk behaviors, such as texting while driving, drinking and driving, and not wearing a seatbelt.
At the NTSB, we have witnessed the effects of unpaid sleep debt on teen drivers. On March 20, 2016, four teens were traveling home from a weekend trip at South Padre Island, Texas. About 1:57 p.m., the driver crossed the center median, lost control of the car, entered the opposing lanes of traffic, and collided with a truck-tractor semitrailer. The driver was seriously injured and her three passengers died. NTSB investigators learned that, in the 24 hours before the crash, the driver had very little opportunity for sleep: only about 5 hours on the morning of the crash. The crash also happened at a time of day when most people commonly experience a dip in alertness and performance; in fact, the three passengers in the car were all either asleep or dozing at the time of the crash. We determined that that the driver’s loss of control was due to inattention resulting from her fatigue.
What can teens do to reduce their risk of falling asleep behind the wheel? It’s important that youth get 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night to be rested and rejuvenated. They should resolve to create a good sleep environment, which includes maintaining a regular sleep schedule and keeping screens out of the bedroom. If a teen has built up a sleep debt by skimping on rest, he or she can pay it back by getting a good night’s sleep for several days in a row. Finally, teens should avoid driving during the night and early morning hours when sleep typically occurs.
As teens begin to plan their upcoming school schedules and enjoy their final weeks of summer vacation, they should make sure sleep and relaxation find a prominent place on their priority list. By encouraging youth to stay out of sleep debt, we can guarantee safer and more alert young drivers behind the wheel.