By Stephanie Shaw
If you’ve spent any time with parents of infants or toddlers, you know that their lives likely revolve around the napping and bedtime schedule of their child. During those early years of life, caregivers make their children’s sleep a priority. We have special nighttime routines to ensure that young kids are relaxed and ready for a restful night’s sleep. Some of us even celebrate as if we’ve just won the lottery when our kids finally sleep through the night.
But as our children get older, getting a full night’s sleep just isn’t the priority it once was—for us or for them. Years pass, and before we know it, that small child is suddenly a teen. But that teen still has special sleep needs on top of a greater exposure to risk.
On March 20, 2016, four teens were traveling home from a weekend trip at South Padre Island, Texas. At about 1:57 pm, the driver lost control of the car, crossed the center median, entered the opposing lanes of traffic, and collided with a truck-tractor semitrailer. The driver was seriously injured and her three friends 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. The Board determined that that the driver’s loss of control was due to inattention resulting from her fatigue.
Young drivers (ages 16 to 24) are at the greatest risk for being involved in a drowsy driving crash. Teens need 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. A recent AAA Foundation study looking at drivers of all ages found that losing just 2 to 3 hours of sleep in one night can significantly elevate crash risk. Attention, reaction time, and decision-making can all be affected. For teens, getting 7 or fewer hours of sleep increases the likelihood that they will engage in high-risk behaviors, like not wearing a seat belt or drinking and driving.
When my son was a teen driver, I made sure to talk to him about the dangers of underage drinking, driving distracted, and driving with his friends in the car. I reminded him often to wear his seatbelt—his best defense in the event of a crash. But I never talked to him about the dangers of drowsy driving. Like most high school students, he had a full schedule—early mornings for class, practice or games every day after school, homework and studying. And that didn’t include the time he spent with friends. Time for sleep was not high on his list of priorities.
In our 24/7 culture, many parents also fail to make sleep a priority, but let’s take the time to teach our teens to prioritize it! It’s important that teens get 8 to 10 hours of good-quality sleep; so, just like when they were little, help them create a good sleep environment, free from electronic devices. Talk with teens about planning for a safe ride to and from school and activities if they have a late night studying or an early-morning event to get to.
As our teens inch closer and closer to adulthood, avoiding drowsy driving is one more life lesson we can instill in them so that they remain safe until they are out on their own—and beyond.
Stephanie Shaw is a Safety Advocate in the NTSB Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications.