The earlier school starts, the higher the risk of teen car accidents, indicates a recently published study comparing teen crash rates in two Virginia counties.
Using data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, the researchers analyzed teen crashes in Chesterfield and Henrico counties over a two-year period, 2009 to 2011.
In Chesterfield County, where school starts at 7:20 a.m., there were 1,074 crashes involving teen drivers during the study period. In Henrico County, where school starts at 8:45 a.m., there were only 707 crashes. (Otherwise, there was no difference in congestion and adult crash rates in the two counties.)
The study, published in November in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, also found that a significant number of crashes involved teen drivers running off the right side of the road, indicating that drowsy driving may be the accident cause.
Although the study does not establish a causal link between school start times and increased teen auto accidents, it does provide more data to consider when analyzing whether “early high school start times are problematic for our teens’ ability to drive safely,” a lead author of the study said in a released statement.
The researchers from Eastern Virginia Medical School, Old Dominion University and Virginia Commonwealth University conducted a similar study comparing crash rates in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach that was published in 2011.
That study also showed higher teen crash rates where school started earlier.
“We believe our results and conclusions regarding increased teen car crashes in counties with earlier school start times are strengthened, as this is a replication study and in light of the stability of our findings over four sequential years,” another study author said.
How Can We Address Teen Drowsy Driving Crashes?
As Science Daily reports, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has estimated that fatigued driving – or drowsy driving – contributes to 328,000 motor vehicle crashes each year, including 6,400 crashes that cause deaths. Drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 have the highest rate of fatigued driving accidents.
Teens experience changes in sleep and circadian rhythms that may cause them to biologically prefer a later bedtime, a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine told Reuters. As a result, earlier school start times may cause teens to be on the road “when their biological clock tells them to sleep,” the expert said.
As Reuters reports, researched funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that was reported in 2014 found that teen car crash rates dropped by 65-70 percent in areas where schools pushed back school start times.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle schools and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later, Reuters notes. The lead author of this latest study suggested to Reuters that high schools start between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m.
Ultimately, the authors hope their latest study leads to parents and school boards collaborating on finding the optimal school start times, with the safety of teen drivers being among the factors they consider.
Parents can also play a role at home by encouraging their teen drivers to get a proper amount of sleep before they head off to school the next morning – roughly nine hours per night, experts suggest.