Sleepy Teens and Drowsy Driving

By Matthew L. Uhles, MS, RPSGT, Director, Technology & Operations for CSI Clinics and Co-Director, CSI Research Center

As part of our commitment to better, healthier sleep in all individuals, I work with Kerrie Warne, the director of the TyRED project, which stands for Tyler Raising Education/Awareness for Driving Drowsy.  Kerrie has committed herself to increasing understanding about the dangers of drowsy driving in honor and commemoration of her son, Tyler, who was killed in a single car accident when he fell asleep at the wheel.

This terrible tragedy has spurred us to develop an educational program for high school students that we have presented to more than 90 schools in the last three years.  My goal here is to share with both teens and parents the benefits of good sleep and the consequences of not enough sleep on health, school performance, health and risks of teenage drowsy driving, as well as tips for better sleep and countermeasures for drowsy driving.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that teenagers sleep 9-10 hours per night, but 85% of adolescents get less than that amount on school nights, with 56% reporting that they get less sleep than they need.  The typical high school senior averages 6.9 hours of sleep on school nights—for a total weekly sleep debt of 10.5 hours!  We have a lot of very sleepy teens!

The downside of inadequate teen sleep is impressive:  lowered immunity, increased acne, impaired metabolism and growth and hindered athletic performance.  The upside of adequate healthy sleep is a healthier, prettier, taller, stronger, smarter, faster and more athletic teen.

And an added incentive for parents:  a National Sleep Foundation poll reports that “A” students sleep 15 minutes more than “B” students, 26 minutes more than “C” students and 36 minutes more than “D” students.  It’s important to know that sleep prepares the brain to take in new information, learn new tasks faster, and consolidate and retain what has been learned.

So how is poor, inadequate sleep connected to drowsy driving?  Sleep deprivation causes a host of cognitive, social and behavioral issues:  decreased ability to think, pay attention, solve problems, make decisions and contributes to irritability and impaired moods that affect emotional control and can lead to impulsivity, hyperactivity and depression.  And then there are the physical impacts: reduced cardiovascular performance, reduced endurance, impaired motor function, delayed visual function and delayed reaction time to name a few.

Now let’s tie this to drowsy driving.  The signs of drowsy driving are,

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Frequent blinking
  • Daydreaming at the wheel
  • Drifting from the driver’s lane
  • Swerving or tailgating
  • No recall of the last few miles driven
  • Yawning and head snaps
  • Missing exits or traffic signs

Who’s likely to drive drowsy?  Fifty-six percent of men compared to 45% of women drive drowsy and 22% of men have fallen asleep while driving compared to 12% of women.  And drowsy driving by age is even more eye-opening:

  • 52% of people aged 30 – 64
  • 19% of people aged 65+
  • 71% of people aged 18 – 29!
  • 51% of adolescents who drive report that they have driven drowsy in the past year
  • 16% of 11th graders and 1 out of 5 12th graders drive drowsy one or more times per week
  • 75% of teens reported seeing their peers driving while fatigued

With this high incidence of sleep deprivation and daytime sleepiness, we need to think about sleepy teens behind the wheel.  Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers.  Sixteen-year-olds are involved in five times more fatal crashes per mile driven as are adults.  A sleepy teen behind the wheel is a prescription for tragedy.

So what can a parent or the sleepy teen do to fix this?  First, get enough sleep night. Next there are countermeasures if you are sleepy and you are driving or may plan to drive:

  • Stop driving!
  • Get a co-pilot and let him/her drive
  • Take a nap—pull over and find a safe place to nap if you are en route
  • Consume caffeine (not energy drinks)
  • Use the buddy system—have your passenger share wakefulness and driving responsibilities

Most importantly, get enough healthy sleep!  Here are some tips for better sleep:

  • Make sleep a priority—get 9-10 hours per night for a smarter, stronger, more attractive you!
  • Set up a regular sleep schedule and routine, and stick with it over the weekend
  • Make your bedroom a NO-gadget zone
  • Get plenty of light in the morning—both sunlight and artificial light helps
  • Exercise, but not too close to bedtime
  • Avoid evening naps

A commitment to better sleep will pay off in many ways and it will make you or your teen a safer, more alert driver.  If you’d like more information about a Drowsy Driving presentation by Kerrie Warne and me at your school, please contact Kerrie Warne at TyREDD.