Sleepy teens are a driving risk


Drowsy driving accounts for as many as 1,500 deaths, 71,000 injuries and 100,000 crashes each year, according to estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But one group of drivers is particularly at risk for driving while drowsy -- young people under age 25. A North Carolina study cited by the National Sleep Foundation found that these young drivers cause more than half of all drowsy-driving-related crashes.
Once puberty begins, teens need almost as much sleep as they did when they were very young. Up to nine hours a day is optimal. But teens' circadian rhythms (body clock cycles) also shift during this time. When a teen tells her parents she's not tired at 10 p.m., she's probably speaking the truth. According to the National Sleep Foundation, a typical high school student's natural time to fall asleep is 11 p.m. or later. That circadian shift also explains why teens like to sleep in.
Unfortunately, this doesn't work well with teens' school and social schedules. Most high schools start earlier than elementary or middle schools, so teens don't have the opportunity to get much-needed sleep in the morning. Add in after-school obligations like sports, clubs and part-time work, plus time for hanging out with friends, and it's easy to see why young people lack shut-eye.
One study reported by the National Sleep Foundation showed that young people average a little more than seven hours of sleep during the school week, much less than they require. Staying in bed longer on weekends doesn't really help them make up the sleep deficit and can actually disrupt their sleep cycle rhythms even more.
Lack of sleep can have serious consequences for people of every age: decreased levels of concentration, increased danger of falling asleep unintentionally, reduced short-term memory and learning ability, negative mood, inconsistent performance, poor productivity and loss of some forms of behavioral control. When you add in young drivers' inexperience behind the wheel and their greater inclination toward risk-taking behaviors, it's not difficult to see why so many drivers this age are involved in drowsy driving crashes.
Auto insurance for teen drivers is already expensive. Getting in a drowsy driving accident will make a teen an even bigger risk -- and more expensive to insure. Therefore, young drivers should learn to recognize the signs that they're too tired to drive. They include:
  • Drifting into another lane.
  • Nodding off briefly.
  • Feeling heavy-eyed or heavy-headed.
  • Yawning.
  • Lack of focus or not noticing what's going on around them in traffic.
If teen drivers feel themselves getting tired, they should pull over as soon as is safely possible, take a 15- to 20-minute nap and get some caffeine. Turning on the radio or opening the window isn't effective for more than a few minutes, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
To increase the amount of sleep they get over the long term, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that young people keep a consistent bedtime and wakeup schedule, get into bright light as soon as possible in the morning (and avoid it at night), stay away from stimulants like caffeine and nicotine after noon (and stay away from alcohol entirely) and avoid activities like heavy studying and computer games an hour before bedtime.

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