Drowsy driving

stockphotopro_4667584FPM_no_titleby Dennis Rosen, MD – Associate Medical Director of Children’s Sleep Laboratory

Sleepiness is a major cause of motor vehicle accidents, and teenagers and young adults seem to be especially at risk. Teenage drivers are three times as likely to be involved in car accidents than middle age adult drivers and studies have shown that two-thirds of sleepiness-related crashes occur in teens and young adults.

In order to better understand the scope of the problem, high school juniors and seniors were surveyed by the researchers about their sleep and driving habits.

Over half of the students complained of excessive daytime sleepiness. This is not surprising, as they reported an average of 7.3 hours of sleep per night during the week, compared with 8.9 hours of sleep per night on weekends. This compares with what the students themselves felt they needed – which is slightly over nine hours per night – which has been shown in other studies as about the average sleep requirement of adolescents.

A little less than half of the students reported sleepiness while driving, yet only 19 percent reported actually doing something to combat the sleepiness, such as taking a break, while the rest simply continued to drive, hoping not to fall asleep behind the wheel.

Eight percent of the students reported being involved in near-miss crashes that they thought occurred because they were excessively sleepy. Of those involved in motor vehicle accidents, 15 percent attributed them to excessive sleepiness. Interestingly, “only” 11 of the crashes were blamed on alcohol. One can’t help wondering if the numbers would have been even higher if the researchers could have gone back and interviewed those who were involved in fatal crashes.

The findings of this study are very important for teenagers, their parents and anyone who finds themselves getting sleepy while driving. They demonstrate just how commonplace the problem is, as well as how infrequently its severity is recognized by drowsy drivers, putting themselves and others at terrible risk.

While everyone knows not to drink and drive, there is much less awareness about how dangerous drowsy driving is, and that it absolutely needs to be avoided. When I see teenagers with excessive daytime sleepiness in my clinic, I always bring up the subject of drowsy driving and caution that if they feel sleepy while driving, they need to either –

  • pull off the road and take a break (a nap or a stretch)
  • have a caffeinated drink
  • give someone else the keys
  • call someone to come get them

Unfortunately, because this is such a commonplace problem, the message that drowsy driving can kill needs to be spread by parents, teachers, physicians and public safety groups, in the same way that groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving have raised public awareness about the dangers of drunk driving.

Read more of what Rosen has to say on children and their sleep on his blog, Sleeping Angels.

Read Children’s youth advisers’ tips on healthy sleep habits.