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Drowsy Driving & Teens

Sleep deprivation is a common problem for teens.  As a result, teens – and especially young men - have a high risk of drowsy driving.    

Teens often fail to realize that their bodies need more sleep than adults.  Although individual sleep needs vary, most adults need about seven to eight hours of sleep each night.  But teens typically need a little more than nine hours of nightly sleep to feel alert and well rested during the day. 

However, surveys show that most teens are getting less than eight hours of sleep on school nights. Some are extreme night owls who sleep for only five or six hours before starting another school day.  This means that the average high school student misses about one to three hours of sleep on school nights.  The result is a weekly sleep debt of five to 15 hours.

Teens compensate for weekday sleep loss by sleeping in much later on the weekends.  This irregularity disrupts their body clock.  As a result, it is even harder for them to fall asleep at night.

This ongoing sleep loss can have a negative effect on the driving performance of teens.  A study published in 2010 found that sleepiness at the wheel and poor sleep quality increased the risk of motor vehicle accidents in teens.  Results show that teen drivers were twice as likely to have had a crash if they experienced sleepiness while driving or reported having bad sleep.

There are a variety of factors that cause teens to struggle with sleep deprivation.  A biological change that occurs during adolescence causes teens to have a “delayed sleep phase.”  There is a shift in the timing of their body clock that causes teens to feel sleepy later at night.  During the teen years it can be hard to fall asleep before 10 or 11 p.m. 

Most teens also have to wake up early in the morning for school.  This can make it hard to get the nine hours of sleep that teens need.  A study published in 2011 found increased automobile crash rates among teen drivers who start school earlier in the morning.   Another study published in 2008 found that the average crash rates for teen drivers dropped by 16.5 percent in a county that moved the high school start time one hour later.

Multiple obligations also can compete for a teen’s limited time.  As a result, sleep can be squeezed out of a teen’s busy schedule.  These obligations include:

  • Studying
  • Participating in sports and extracurricular activities
  • Working after school
  • Sharing responsibilities at home
  • Enjoying social activities

Lifestyle choices also contribute to teen sleep deprivation.  Teens may procrastinate and then stay up all night to study for an exam.  Or they may stay out late at a party.

Today there also are numerous technological distractions that can keep teens awake at night.  Multi-tasking teens may spend time watching TV or movies, playing video games, interacting online and talking or texting on a cell phone.  A study published in 2009 found that teens used an average of four technological devices after 9 p.m.  Teens who got plenty of sleep on school nights tended to do less technological multi-tasking after 9 p.m