Talk to Your Teens about Drowsy Driving

Karla Smith, Director
The Sleep Center

Drowsy DrivingWhen our children are studying for their driver’s permit, we help them by explaining the rules of the road as well as discussing the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol and texting and driving.  But, how many of us discuss the danger of driving while drowsy or sleepy? I am willing to bet that this subject rarely comes up in conversation between teen drivers and their parents.

Here are a few sobering facts:

  • A study done by AAA in 2010 estimated that drivers age 16 to 24 were 78 percent more likely to drive drowsy than drivers older than age 40.
  • At least one in seven drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 admitted to dozing while driving at least once in the past year; this compares with one in ten among drivers of all age groups in one year.
  • A North Carolina study found that drivers age 25 and younger were involved in 55 percent of crashes in which the driver fell asleep.
  • Most fatal drowsy driving crashes happen when the driver is less than one hour from home.
  • Eyewitnesses to drowsy driving fatalities state that there is no attempt by the driver to slow down or avoid an imminent crash.

These facts should be enough reason to begin the drowsy driving dialogue with our teens. However, there are a few things one should know regarding sleep in general and how teens differ from the majority.

The average amount of sleep adults should get each night is seven to nine hours.  Teenagers should be getting nine to ten hours of sleep per night; but on average, many teens are getting only seven to nine hours of sleep per night. They are usually so busy with life, school, homework, participating in school sports, working and socializing. Their attempts to fit all of this into one day causes our kids to get to bed later then we would like. Ongoing sleep deprivation can reduce one’s ability to process information, sustain attention, have accurate motor control or react normally. These are exactly the skills needed to operate a vehicle.

To give you an idea of how serious sustained sleep deprivation is, let’s compare sleep deprivation in hours to blood alcohol levels:

  • 17-18 hours awake is similar to the performance of someone with a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent (0.08 percent is considered legally drunk).
  • 20-25 hours awake is similar to the performance of someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent.

We can teach our teens how to improve their sleep quality by teaching them good sleep hygiene, discuss signs of becoming too sleepy when driving, give them tips on how to arrive alive and come up with a plan if they are too tired to drive.

Sleep Hygiene

  • Establish a bedtime routine, even on the weekends
  • Avoid caffeine
  • Exercise 20-30 minutes each day
  • Eliminate or reduce the number of electronic devices in the bedroom
  • Keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature
  • Restrict sleep on the weekends

Signs a Driver Needs to Pull over and Rest

  • Yawning repeatedly
  • Difficulty focusing, blinking often and heavy eyelids
  • Trouble keeping head up
  • Missing exits or traffic signs
  • Feeling restless, irritable or aggressive
  • Drifting from lanes, tailgating or hitting rumble strips
  • Inability to clearly remember the last few miles driven

Arrive Alive

  • Get a good night’s rest before hitting the road
  • Don’t be in a hurry to get to your destination
  • Avoid driving during hours when you would normally be asleep
  • Use the buddy system
  • Take a break every 100 miles or two hours
  • Take a nap
  • Avoid alcohol and medications that cause drowsiness
  • Consume caffeine (The equivalent of two cups of coffee can increase alertness for several hours)

Making a Plan

  • Get a ride from someone else
  • Take public transit or a taxi
  • Pull over to a safe place, and take a nap in your car
  • Draw up a contract
  • Enroll in an “Alive at 25” course

These strategies have been proven to work, so discuss the topic with your young driver.  It will help them to become better drivers, but most importantly they will arrive home safe. Lead by example.  Adults also should practice good sleep hygiene, know when they are too fatigued to drive and arrive alive!

Learn more about The Sleep Center at St. Alexius Medical Center.