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American teens: Sleep-impaired behind the wheel

Would you write a check on an overdrawn account? Would you try to board an airline without a ticket?

What about this one: Would you allow your teenager to drink three beers before driving to school each morning? Trick question: You say “no,” but your teenager’s sleep-deprived eyes say “yes.”

Teen drivers face a serious problem

Which of the following statements are true, and which are false? Some of the answers are obvious, but others may be less apparent:

  • Electronic devices emit blue light rays that negatively affect sleep.
  • Car crashes are the number one cause of teen fatalities.
  • Teens perform too many household tasks, cutting into their sleep time.
  • Teens need at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night.
  • Sleep-deprived teens behind the wheel are similar to alcohol-impaired drivers.
  • Motor vehicle crash rates are highest for drivers over 80.

In fact, all these statements are true except for the last. Out of every age group, the highest number of crashes occur for drivers 16–19 years old — not in the 80+ age category. Worse, the number one cause of fatality in teens is motor vehicle crashes.

Drowsy driving is like drunk driving

When your teen loses just two hours of sleep at night, his or her mental condition is the same as drinking three beers. The chance of getting into a vehicle accident after a night of only four or five hours of sleep makes your risk four times greater than a person who slept seven hours. Shockingly, that is the same crash risk as for a legally drunk driver with a 0.08 alcohol concentration. Your drowsy teen could be driving to school near or at that level many mornings.

Parents can help their teen drivers

Find a good time when you and your teen can relax together and discuss ideas to avoid driving under the effects of sleep deprivation. It is a good idea to speak as a friend, not as a lecturing adult. Maybe cutting back on an after-school job or dropping an extracurricular activity would help. Spending less time using electronic devices is important. Later, check in and find out whether your teen feels more rested during the week.

If your teen does get involved in an accident as a driver, a compassionate professional can advocate for juveniles who need help.