Could More Sleep for Tired Teens Save Lives?

By Jill Duffy

don’t like to go to bed early, but to get to school on time, they often have to wake up at the crack of dawn, leaving them -deprived. Another thing teenagers don’t like is taking the bus to school once they have a driver’s license. Researchers in Virginia had a hunch that forcing students to go to school so early was causing them to drive while sleepy and get into more car accidents. Could pushing the school opening time by an hour help them get more sleep, reduce car accidents, and therefore save lives?

The authors of the 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, looked at two years’ worth of car crash reports in two similar cities: Virginia Beach, where starts around 7:25 a.m., and Chesapeake, whose schools don’t open until almost 8:45.

The 16 to 18-year olds who roll into school before 7:30 a.m. were involved in more morning  than students who start school after 8:30. In 2008, for example, Virginia Beach’s teen driver crash rate was 65.8 per 1,000, while Chesapeake saw far fewer accidents among the same demographic: only 46.6 per 1,000. In 2007, the results were just as bleak.

The evidence doesn’t end there. When the researchers looked at the time of morning when teen driver crashes peaked, it was one hour earlier in Virginia Beach than in Chesapeake, lining up with each city’s high school commute time.

Teenagers need about nine hours of sleep per night to function at their best. The problem is that high school students tend not to go to bed any earlier no matter what time they have to wake up the next morning. But delaying school opening times does in fact encourage more sleep, at least according to one study at a Rhode Island school. When school start time switched from 8:00 a.m. to 8:30, students got an extra 45 minutes of sleep on average on weekdays.

Another high school in Kentucky also switched its start time by an hour. The area saw a significant decline in teen car crashes, to the tune of 16.5 percent. Teen crash rates in the rest of the state rose more than 7 percent during the same time.

The good news is policymakers have taken notice. The American Academy of Pediatrics penned a very specific policy recommendation that U.S. middle schools and high schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. And in 2014, U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, with help from the National Sleep Foundation, began work to introduce legislation that would address school start times and its effects on students.

“Sufficient sleep is critically important for the health, wellbeing, and performance of adolescents,” Rep. Lofgren said in a statement, adding, that “adjusting school start times can be an important tool to improve students’ sleep.”

There’s still more work to be done before local school districts actually make changes, but the ball is certainly rolling. Lives may depend on it.

Tags:  High School Sleep Sleep Health Teenagers Traffic Accidents

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