Why drowsy driving is impaired driving

Motor vehicle crashes remain the number one cause of death for teens in the US, and I always remind parents that they need to help their teens make safe choices around driving. In previous columns I have discussed inexperience, poor scanning and distraction as important causes of serious young driver crashes.

An important cause of fatal crashes is drowsy driving. One in five fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver, and drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 are the most likely to be involved in these crashes, according to research conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Driving drowsy is driving impaired – compromising judgment, executive function, cognitive speed, and muscle coordination. To put this impairment in perspective, according to the National Sleep Foundation, being awake for 18 hours is similar to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08, which is legally intoxicated.

Early school start times, after school activities, and summer jobs can cut into precious sleep time required by teens, who need about 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep a night to be healthy. Teen drivers who sleep less than eight hours nightly are one-third more likely to crash than those who sleep eight or more hours nightly, according to research conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Here’s how parents can help their teens manage this little known crash risk:

Discuss this safety concern. Talk with your teen about how drowsy driving is impaired driving. Explain that sleep is an important safety concern and that either driving while exhausted or accepting a ride from someone who is extremely fatigued is unacceptable.

Provide a safe alternative. Offer to drive your tired teen to school or work to prevent drowsy driving. If you cannot provide the ride, encourage your teen to take Uber, public transportation, or a cab when he or she is too tired to drive.

Monitor your teen’s sleep. Parents should monitor their child’s sleep habits and not allow him or her behind the wheel if drowsy.

Encourage more sleep, especially on weekends. This isn’t easy with early start times at most high schools and erratic summer job schedules, but parents can help by letting their teens sleep in on weekends. A JAMA Pediatrics study of drivers 17 to 24 years of age showed that having only six hours of sleep a night was enough to increase crash risk.

Know the warning signs. Yawning or blinking frequently, difficulty remembering the past few miles driven, missing an exit, drifting from the lane, or hitting a rumble strip are all signs of drowsy driving. Anyone exhibiting these signs should pull over or let someone else drive.

Model safe behavior. Develop a healthy sleep schedule for yourself that includes consistent sleep/wake times and limits on technology close to bedtime. Do not drive when exhausted, especially at night when most crashes caused by drowsy driving occur. Let your teen know that you have felt the effects of driving while drowsy in the past and are changing your behavior to be safe.

Teens need to know that they have to be ready in body and mind to drive safely. It’s your role to help them get the rest they need to be safe on the road and in all aspects of their lives and to withhold the keys if they are too drowsy to drive.


Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here. Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »