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Drowsy driving creates danger for teens

Car accidents are the leading cause of death among teens. What may surprise you is that sleep deprivation is a factor in 20 percent of all car accidents.

by Katherine K. Dahlsgaard, Ph.D.

At age 23, Herb Brooks was the last player cut from the 1960 American Olympic hockey team, which went on to win the gold medal.  Twenty years later, however, Brooks organized and coached a rag-tag group of college students into the American team for the 1980 Olympics that beat the Soviet Union to win gold. Brooks is largely credited for one of the most staggering upsets -- as well as one of the most famous calls -- in American sports history. A little over twenty years after that, the movie Miracle documented this stunning triumph. Tragically, Brooks never made it to the premiere. He died in an automobile accident early one morning a few months before Miracle was released. The cause of the crash? Brooks fell asleep at the wheel.

Car accidents are the leading cause of death among teens. What may surprise you is that sleep deprivation is a factor in 20% of all car accidents.  That's right: Not getting enough sleep (such as after pulling an all-nighter to study for that final exam) is a factor in 1 in 5 car accidents. More than half of these accidents involve drivers 25 and under.

Sleep deprivation accidents are as fatal as those attributed to alcohol-related crashes. Research has shown that being continuously awake for 24 hours results in impairments equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of .10 (.08 equals legally drunk for adults, but the prohibited levels in most states are .01% or .02% for drivers under 21).

Many of you have children in high school or college. These teens are a) new drivers and b) typically chronically sleep deprived. What should you do as a parent?  My suggestions:

  1. Remind them that with great power comes great responsibility.  If you haven't already, let your teens know in no uncertain terms that the car they are driving is a lethal weapon.  Make this very clear.

  2. Ground them from the car whenever they are sleep deprived.  Do this compassionately: If they stayed up late writing a paper, offer them a ride to school in the morning. Or insist they take the bus. Refuse to allow them to drive through the night, or even half the night, no matter how totally awesome that music festival two states away may be. Tell them never to ride in a car whose driver is sleep deprived and to call you in those circumstances for a ride home. Restrict driving after midnight and before 6 a.m., the period when most drowsy driving accidents occur for teens and young adults.

  3. Your teens won't listen to you, of course – their brains aren't wired that way (more on this in a future blog post).  The very best you can do is model the behavior you want them to emulate.  If you are sleep deprived, ask your spouse to drive you to work. Or explain to your child that you have to take the train this morning because "I stayed up too late working, and now my brain is too tired to drive safely."

  4. Actually do #3. As evidenced by Coach Brooks, otherwise sane adults drive while sleep-deprived, too.

For more information and recommendations to prevent drowsy driving accidents in teens, read (and insist your kid read) the National Sleep Foundation's report on Adolescent Sleep Needs and Patterns or their page with tips to prevent drowsy driving.

Katherine K. Dahlsgaard, Ph.D., is lead psychologist at the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic (ABC) at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.