Drowsy Student Drivers, Please Take a Nap

Grace Klein (left in a profile picture she drew) wrote for the SRCA Newsletter last year as a Scripps Ranch High School senior. She now attends Stanford University and is enrolled in the infamous course “Sleep and Dreams.” The class is taught by Dr. Dement, a leading sleep researcher and member of the team to first discover Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. This column was written as part of the Sleep Outreach Project for that class, in order to educate the public about the perils of drowsy driving. It draws largely from sources written by Dr. Dement, as well as other academic journal articles by researchers such as Carskadon, Jones, O’Brien, Pack, Vanlaar, and the National Sleep Foundation. If you’d like to read more about sleep or look at any of these articles yourself, feel free to contact Grace at [email protected]

Yes, this is going to be one of those sleep articles. You know the ones—they nag you about how you and your children need more sleep. They quote statistics from the 2013 Gallup Poll, which revealed that at least 61% of American adults are getting less than seven hours of sleep a night. TIME magazine runs one annually.

But before you throw this column on the coffee table to get lost in the rest of the newspaper strata, let me just say that at least 20% of car crashes in America are attributable—at least in part—to sleep-deprivation. In cash terms, this amounts to about $12.4 billion in damages annually. In lives, it’s about 1,500 people killed each year, and another 76,000 injured.

It turns out the lack of sleep itself won’t literally kill you—a human being can go at least 11 days without sleep and not spontaneously drop dead. But if you are one of the 61% of Americans who is chronically sleep deprived, then your odds of totaling a car are just as high as if you downed two shots before getting behind the wheel. These aren’t just fender benders either. Crashes caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel result in serious injuries.

How, then, is this relevant to high school? Unfortunately, these crashes are empirically most likely to occur from midnight to 7 am and with drivers younger than age 25.

Scripps Ranch High School starts at 7:25 am, on the dot, every morning. I got up for school every day around 6 am. Some of my friends—the ones who drove me to school—woke up even earlier. Seniors looking to get a good parking space would try to leave before 6:45 am, sometimes as early as 6:30 am. This is exactly the time that sleep-deprived teenagers should not be driving.

And, believe me, teenagers are sleep-deprived. Only 15% of teenagers report getting enough sleep—8½ hours or more—and at least 26% get less than six hours most weekdays. In addition to a naturally delayed sleep schedule inconsistent with the school day, adolescents face external pressure from parents, teachers, and their peers to work harder and stay up later. They are socialized to think that sleep comes last on their priorities list—if homework eats up more than three hours of your “free time,” and required extracurricular activities another two, then night becomes the time for socializing, watching television, and playing video games. When else are teens supposed to have fun?

High-performing teens are affected the worst. It’s the honors students—the overachievers stretched too thin across three clubs, a sports team, and five AP classes—who are getting the least sleep. A study of adolescents found that the subject group spending at least 20 hours a week on work—paid or unpaid employment—as well as 20 hours on extracurriculars was most susceptible to high-risk behavior, like drowsy driving. All this without factoring in time spent studying.

Sleep-deprivation in teens has been linked to a whole host of other undesirable consequences, such as mood disorders, poor academic performance, high risk-taking, and increased daytime sleepiness resulting in, say, the tendency to sleep through the first two class periods. But it also—provably, objectively—increases the risk of automobile accidents and death.

Teens need more sleep. It’s a fact, and it’s time to stop ignoring that and do something about it. But in the meantime, if you’re having trouble keeping your eyes open and fixed on the road, pull over and stop. Nap on the roadside for 15 minutes and you just might save a life.

Grace Klein, SRHS Alumnus