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Does Your Teen Fall Asleep Behind the Wheel?


If you are a parent of a teen who is old enough to drive, worrying that he or she will someday fall asleep behind the wheel and have an accident is likely on your list of concerns. And with good reason: a new study indicates that teen drivers are twice as likely to have an accident if they are sleepy while driving or have not had a good night’s sleep.

Investigators at the University of Bologna in Italy studied 339 students who had a driver’s license and who were attending their last two years of high school in Bologna. The teens were asked to complete questionnaires that queried them about sleep and lifestyle habits, indications of sleep disorders, driving habits and feeling sleepy while driving, and how they coped with sleepiness while driving.

Twenty percent (80 students) had already had at least one accident, and 15 percent of them believed sleepiness was the main cause of the crash. Fifty-six percent of the teens who had had at least one accident said they were driving while sleepy, compared with 35 percent who had not been in an accident.

The Italian teens reported that they needed 9.2 hours of sleep each night, but they were getting only 7.3 hours during the week. Only six percent of students were sleeping nine or more hours during the week, and 58 percent said they tried to sleep nine hours or more on weekends.

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The teens’ sleep quality also was less than optimal. Forty-five percent said they woke up at least once during the night and then had trouble falling asleep again, 40 percent had difficulties getting up in the morning, and 19 percent said they had bad sleep. Overall, 64 percent of the teens said they were overly sleepy during the day.

How do the Italian teens compare with those in America? According to the National Sleep Foundation, most teens are sleep deprived, and only 15 percent get 8.5 hours of sleep during the week. Although 60 percent of Americans report that they have driven while sleepy and 37 percent admit to falling asleep while driving in the past year, specific numbers on teen drivers are not available.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a publication entitled “Drowsy Driving and Automobile Crashes,” with information compiled by the Expert Panel on Driver Fatigue and Sleepiness. Although the information in the study is dated, it reported that young people, especially males, are among those at highest risk of being involved in a sleep-related crash. The Panel noted that education on sleep and driving were worthwhile, and that the messages might be “sleepiness is not inevitable for teens, and it is not okay to drive when you are sleepy.”

This message is global. The authors of the University of Bologna study also believe education is critical and emphasize the need for programs that focus on teens and that provide information about how to improve sleeping habits, the importance of sleep, and the dangers of driving while sleepy. Teens need to recognize, for example, that listening to the radio or drinking coffee very likely will not prevent them from falling asleep behind the wheel if they are drowsy.

American Academy of Sleep Medicine
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
National Sleep Foundation