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Are higher crash rates related to earlier school start times?

While the terms “distracted driving” or even “drunk driving” have infiltrated common usage over the last several decades, there is a newer phrase that seems to bridge the gap between the two. With individuals pushing themselves, multitasking and failing to recognize their limits, “drowsy driving” has become a deadly reality on our nation's roads.

In a study that has been replicated since the early 2000s, researchers continue to explore the link between newer drivers and early school start times. Insufficient sleep, coupled with less overall driving experience, can quickly become a deadly hazard on the road.

One study specifically compared two counties in Virginia that had vastly different start times for high school classes. Classes began at 7:20 a.m. in Chesterfield County and at 8:45 a.m. in the adjacent Henrico County. For the school year spanning 2009 to 2010, researchers found that the weekday crash rate for teen drivers was 29 percent higher in Chesterfield County. For the school year spanning 2010 to 2011, researchers found similar results. During that school year, the weekday crash rate for teen drivers was 27 percent higher in Chesterfield county.

Adult crash rates showed no difference county to county over the same time period.

According to the authors of the paper: “There is more and more data suggesting that insufficient sleep is common in our teens and that early high school start times are a contributor to the teens’ reduced sleep.”

Parents must remain vigilant in protecting their young drivers by ensuring they get the proper amount of sleep. This can be a challenge when facing a schedule packed with homework and extracurricular activities such as sports, clubs and social interaction but adequate sleep can increase attention, shorten reaction lag and make roads safer for all involved.

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