By Thomas M. Heffron
Senior Director of Communications & Advocacy, American Academy of Sleep Medicine
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, killing more than 2,000 teen drivers each year. While drunk driving and distracted driving are key risk factors, drowsy driving deserves similar attention.
The scope of our nation’s drowsy driving problem is staggering. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that an average of 328,000 crashes involve a drowsy driver each year, including 6,400 fatal crashes. These drivers are much more likely to be teens: Drivers between 16 and 24 years of age are 80 percent more likely to be involved in a drowsy driving accident than drivers who are 40 years of age or older.
What can be done about the teen drowsy driving problem? Here are three keys that deserve consideration from parents, educators and policy makers:
First, it’s important to recognize that there is a natural, biological basis for the typical teen’s “night owl” preference to stay up late at night and sleep late in the morning. In puberty a natural shift occurs in the timing of the body’s internal “circadian” clock, causing most teens to have a biological preference for a late-night bedtime. One marker of this shift is a delay in the production of melatonin, a hormone that acts as a sleep signal for the body. Due to this “delayed sleep phase,” many teens struggle to fall asleep before 11 p.m.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that teens sleep 8 to 10 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health. However, CDC data show that only about 27 percent of teens get sufficient sleep on an average school night, and this number is trending in the wrong direction.
Policy changes such as graduated driver licensing laws and distracted driving laws are helping to reduce teen driving accidents. Another opportunity for policy change is to address early school start times. A teen who falls asleep around 11 p.m. would need to wake up at 7 a.m. or later to get sufficient sleep. This is a logistical problem for many teens who must get up early for school.
It is the position of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine that middle school and high school start times should be 8:30 a.m. or later to support teen health, well-being, safety and academic performance. Yet a CDC analysis found that more than 80 percent of public middle schools and high schools started school before 8:30 a.m. These early school start times may be associated with higher teen crash rates.
Parents should work together with their local school boards to implement middle school and high school start times that allow teens to get the healthy sleep they need to meet their full potential. Delaying school start times may lead to a reduction in crash rates for teen drivers. You can use this template letter to begin the discussion in your school district. You also can find a wealth of resources on the Start School Later website.
Finally, parents and educators need to set an example for teens by making sleep a top health priority. Adults need to model healthy sleep habits in the home so that children and teens understand the importance of sleep. Healthy sleep begins with a consistent, nightly bedtime that is early enough to get the sleep that your body needs. This online bedtime calculator makes it easy for you to determine when everyone in your home should make time to sleep.
Bedtime is even more challenging for teens because they are surrounded by technology that competes for their time and attention. Nighttime social media use, screen-based media usage and binge-watching all can prevent teens from getting sufficient sleep. Parents need to help teens prioritize sleep by establishing reasonable limits on the use of technology on school nights.
High school teachers, school nurses, counselors and coaches also can help by teaching teens that “Sleep Recharges You.” This high school toolkit provides links to lesson plans, classroom activities and presentations that can be used to bring sleep education into the classroom.
Drowsy driving is prevalent, but it is preventable. Let’s work together to reduce teen drowsy driving on our roads.
Thomas Heffron is Senior Director of Communication and Advocacy for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a professional society that improves sleep health and promotes high quality, patient-centered care through advocacy, education, strategic research, and practice standards.