Robert Vorona, MD, a sleep medicine specialist at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk VA, recently conducted a study that found an association between car accidents involving teen drivers and early high school start times.
Vorona’s research team found that in Virginia Beach, where high school classes began at 7:20 a.m., there were 65.4 automobile crashes for every 1,000 teen drivers. In the adjacent town of Chesapeake, where high school start times averaged 8:40 a.m., there were only 46.2 crashes for every 1,000 teen drivers. In both cities, the peak incidence of crashes with teen drivers was immediately after schools let out in the afternoon.
The researchers suggest the earlier school start times in Virginia Beach may lead to the students there getting less sleep— resulting in drowsy driving— a known risk factor for increased motor vehicle accidents. Unfortunately, the full report on the study hasn’t been published yet, so many of the details remain unavailable. While the findings are interesting, there are still plenty of questions left unanswered: were there similar discrepancies in the number of adult accidents in the two towns? Could other factors not relating to age or sleep time, like road quality or traffic differences, explain the data?
One thing we do know is that teenagers have a natural tendency to stay up later in the evening, and to sleep in the next morning. Not only does this result in insufficient sleep (according to the 2006 “Sleep in America” poll, 80 percent of teens sleep fewer than the recommended nine hours per night), but it also effectively sets their internal body clock to a different time zone, resulting in something very similar to jet-lag.
Many people have pointed out that disregarding teenagers’ natural urge to sleep later and forcing them to wake up and start their school day while their internal body clock is still actively trying to pull them back to sleep is counterproductive. Just last year, Dr. Paul Kelley, headmaster of Monkseaton Community High School in North Tyneside, England, made headlines after proposing that classes at his school start at 11 a.m. Kelley made the suggestion after Russell Foster, BSc, PhD, FRS, a professor of neuroscience at Oxford, found that students’ memory skills improved when tested at 2 p.m. instead of at 9 a.m.
Now, in addition to the potential academic advantages of later school start times for teens, this study suggests that earlier school start times may actually be putting them at risk of bodily harm. So then, one would think, high schools should shift their schedules to give the teens the opportunity to get the sleep they need, in the timeframe they’re naturally geared towards. Unfortunately the solution is far from that simple.
If schools start, and end, later, all of the sports, social and other extra-curricular activities that high schoolers engage in will go later as well. There will also be a greater incentive to stay up later to socialize, watch TV, go online and put off doing homework. In fact, it is quite likely that instead of getting more sleep, the sleep period will simply be delayed to a later portion of the night (and morning). This is a pattern many parents witness in their teens on Fridays and Saturdays. If school start times are delayed, it’s likely that students will achieve a new equilibrium very quickly, continue to not get enough sleep as much as they should and just shift their schedules to adjust to the new school times.
There are also many logistical hurdles to overcome with postponing school start times. It will be very challenging for some parents to balance making sure their kids get to school on time against their own need to get to work early in the morning. Teachers, school support staff workers, bus drivers and so on will all have to agree to a schedule change as well, which could run afoul of their personal lives and/or union regulations. For those with children of their own at home, this may pose real hardships.
So what’s the best approach to solving the problem of kids not sleeping enough at night and being sleepy during the day? Perhaps both teens and their parents need to pay closer attention to how much (or how little) sleep they’re actually getting, and maintain a regular schedule that allows them to sleep the nine hours they need, as well as avoiding sleeping in much later on weekends which serves to desynchronize their internal body clocks from the world around them. Doing this would go a long way towards helping them stay healthier, drive safer and function better both emotionally and academically.
Quick fixes for things that would otherwise require an investment of time and effort are appealing, but rarely match the success of hard, steady work. As anyone who has ever successfully lost weight and kept it off can attest to (wonder diets notwithstanding), nothing predicts success more than fewer calories in and more calories out. Likewise, keeping to a regular schedule and making sure to allow for an age-appropriate amount of sleep, while not always easy, can bring about a happier, healthier and better functioning child, who also may be at lower risk for drowsy driving which can lead to an accident.