Sleepiness is a major cause of motor vehicle accidents, and teenagers and young adults seem to be especially at risk. Teenage drivers are three times as likely to be involved in car accidents than middle age adult drivers, and studies have shown that 2/3 of sleepiness-related crashes occur in teens and young adults. In order to better understand the scope of the problem, an Italian group looked at the connection between the sleep habits of high school students who were driving regularly and motor vehicle accidents. 339 high school juniors and seniors in Bologna were surveyed by the researchers, and asked about their sleep and driving habits. The results of the study were published last week in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine*.
64% of the students complained of excessive daytime sleepiness. This is not surprising, as they reported an average of 7.3 hours sleep/night during the week, compared with 8.9 hours sleep/night on weekends. This compares with what the students themselves felt they needed, slightly over 9 hours/night, which has been shown in other studies as about the average sleep requirement of adolescents.
135 students, or 40%, reported sleepiness while driving, yet only 26 (19%) reported actually doing something to combat the sleepiness, such as taking a break, with the rest simply continuing to drive, hoping not to fall asleep behind the wheel.
28 of the students (8%) reported being involved in near-miss crashes which they thought occurred because they were excessively sleepy. Of those 80 students who were actually involved in motor vehicle accidents, 12 (15%) attributed them to excessive sleepiness. Interestingly, "only" 11 of the crashes were blamed on alcohol. One can't help wondering if the numbers would have been even higher if the researchers could have gone back and interviewed those who were involved in fatal crashes.
The findings of this study are very important for teenagers, their parents, and anyone who finds her/himself getting sleepy while driving. They demonstrate just how commonplace the problem is, as well as how infrequently its severity is recognized by drowsy driver, putting themselves and others at terrible risk. While everyone knows not to drink and drive, there is much less awareness about how dangerous drowsy driving is, and that it absolutely needs to be avoided. When I see teenagers with excessive daytime sleepiness in my clinic, I always bring up the subject of drowsy driving, and caution them that if they feel sleepy while driving, they need to pull off the road, and take a break (a nap or a stretch), have a caffeinated drink, give someone else the keys, or call someone to come get them. Unfortunately, because this is such a commonplace problem, the message that drowsy driving can kill needs to be spread by parents, teachers, physicians, and public safety groups, in the same way that groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) have raised public awareness about the dangers of drunk driving.
Dennis Rosen, M.D.
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*Pizza F; Contardi S; Baldi Antognini A; Zagoraiou M; Borrotti M; Mostacci B; Mondini S; Cirignotta F. Sleep quality and motor vehicle crashes in adolescents. J Clin Sleep Med 2010; 6(1):41-45.