Motor vehicle crashes remain a leading cause of injury and death for teens and young adults in the United States, and parents need to help their teens make safe driving choices, including not getting behind the wheel when fatigued. Teen drowsy driving is a very serious issue and needs to be managed.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 684 people died in crashes involving drowsy drivers in 2021. Drowsy driving is impaired driving – compromising judgment, executive function, cognitive speed, and muscle coordination. To put this impairment in perspective, being awake for 18 hours is similar to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08, which is legally intoxicated.
A 2023 National Sleep Foundation survey found that in their first 2 years of driving, 1 in 6 teen drivers have already gotten behind the wheel while drowsy. This could be because they do not really understand the danger: 95% of teens surveyed say that drowsy driving is risky but most rate driving while intoxicated, high or distracted as more dangerous.
Early school start times, after school activities, and summer jobs can cut into precious sleep time required by teens, who need about 8 ½ to 9 ¼ hours of sleep a night to be healthy. Teen drivers who sleep less than 8 hours nightly are one-third more likely to crash than those who sleep 8 or more hours nightly.
Researchers have also shown that as teens get less sleep, their risky driving behaviors increase, including sending texts or emails while driving, or not wearing a seat belt (which was three times as likely for teens who had slept less than 6 hours the previous night as compared to those who had gotten at least 8 hours of sleep), according to a 2018 research letter published in JAMA Pediatrics.
According to a 2019 study published in JAMA Pediatrics, nearly half of teen drivers ages 15 to 18 surveyed said they had driven while drowsy in the past year. Teen drowsy driving was 14% higher among students who slept less than 7 hours on school nights. Drowsy driving also occurred more frequently among those who identified as "night owls."
Prevent Teen Drowsy Driving
Parents can help prevent this little known crash risk. Here's how:
- Talk 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 too tired to drive.
- Set limits on device usage. Do not allow the use of electronics at bedtime or overnight.
- Monitor sleep habits. Be aware of your teen's sleep schedule and do not allow getting behind the wheel if overly tired.
- 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.
- Know the warning signs. Yawning or blinking frequently, having 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 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. Parents need to help them get the rest they need to be safe on the road and to withhold the keys if they are too drowsy to drive.
Drowsy driving occurs most frequently between midnight and 6 a.m. or in the late afternoon. At both times of the day, people experience dips in their circadian rhythm—the human body’s internal clock that regulates sleep.
More Teen Drowsy Driving Statistics and Facts
- As teens get less sleep, their risky driving behaviors increase, including cell phone use while driving and not wearing a seat belt.
- 6 in 10 drivers (62%) have driven a motor vehicle when they were so tired that they had a hard time keeping their eyes open, a projected 150+ million drivers.
- Drowsy driving occurs more frequently among teens who consider themselves "night owls."
- Being awake for 18 hours is similar to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08, which is legally intoxicated.