By Stephanie Shaw, NTSB Safety Advocate
Drowsy driving isn’t just a teen driver problem—it’s an every driver problem. However, a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study found that young drivers are at the greatest risk of being involved in a fatal drowsy driving crash.
From early sports practices and school start times to the demands of classwork, homework, and after-school activities, school days leave little time for sleep. It’s no surprise teens are skipping sleep to keep up—how else would they have time to balance extracurriculars, schoolwork, classroom hours, and socializing?
Getting behind the wheel a bit drowsy is probably part of your child’s daily routine, and you’ve likely accepted it as an occupational hazard of the ever-increasing to-do list your high schooler faces. What you may not know is that drowsy driving can be just as dangerous as alcohol‑impaired driving. For example, on March 20, 2016, four teens were traveling home from a weekend trip to South Padre Island, Texas. About 1:57 pm, the driver crossed the center median, lost control of the car, entered the opposing lanes of traffic, and collided with a tractor trailer.
The driver was seriously injured and her three passengers died. In the 24 hours before the crash, the driver had a window of only about 5 hours to sleep. 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.
Do your best to ensure that your teen gets the right amount of sleep each night. For example, discourage your teen from using a cell phone late at night or during the night; these inhibit falling asleep and affect sleep quality. Also, limit driving time, especially between the hours of midnight and 5 am, when the body is accustomed to sleeping—this is the period of time in which the greatest number of drowsy driving crashes occur. For more ideas on ensuring your teen gets the right amount of sleep to stay alert behind the wheel, see our safety alert, Drowsy Driving Among Young Drivers.
As with all road safety lessons, it’s beneficial to lead by example and avoid driving while you’re tired. However, make sure your teen understands that adults generally need less sleep than teenagers, who are still growing and developing. While you may feel rested after 7 hours of sleep, teens need between 8 and 10 hours each night to avoid suffering the effects of fatigue. Keep in mind that your teen may have no idea how fatigued he or she is. The statement, “I only slept 4 hours last night, but I feel fine to drive,” should sound like a warning siren, not a reassurance. We are all notoriously bad judges of our own fatigue.
Work with your teens to help them manage their time so they’re getting the sleep they need. During the summer, teens’ sleep schedules often become irregular, so as they begin to plan their upcoming school schedules and enjoy their final weeks of summer vacation, teens should make sure sleep and relaxation find a prominent place on their priority list. Make sure your children know it’s not only okay, but also biologically necessary to sleep. And be aware that it’s not only acute sleep loss but also chronic sleep debt that can precede a drowsy driving crash. Losing a little sleep every night for a long time is dangerous for all drivers, but in young drivers, “minor” sleep losses over multiple nights can add up when combined with their bodies’ greater need for sleep.
Teen drivers have a lot on their plates: social life, after-school work and activities, the school day itself, homework . . . the list goes on. Older teens preparing for college may also be consumed by scholarship and college applications and test preparation, and overwhelmed by academic pressure. By encouraging youth to stay out of sleep debt and away from acute sleep deprivation, we can guarantee safer and more alert young drivers behind the wheel.