Teen Drivers Need a Full Tank of Z-Z-Zs

Teens have the highest crash rates in the country. That is a plain, simple and -- if you’re a parent -- very frightening fact.  Many chalk it up to the exuberance and inexperience of youth, plus the serious problem of teenage drinking.  But now insurance company GEICO says it agrees with a growing number of sources, including the National Sleep Foundation, that the problem could be reduced by a good night’s sleep. Why? Because teenagers these days get the least sleep of any studied group.

Two critical factors collide when teens are in their early driving years: 1) they need nearly 9.5 hours of sleep every night to accommodate an upswing in growth and hormone development, and 2) they get far less sleep than they need -- an average of 7.4 hours a night, and considerably less than that for many. Compounding the problem further, some researchers say that teens’ biological clocks are set so that they fall asleep later at night and wake up later in the morning, a schedule that makes the early morning classes most schools require difficult. It all results in a nation of very sleepy teenagers. And a sleepy teenager behind the wheel is a recipe for disaster.

To ward off that disaster, parents with teen drivers should observe their teens’ sleeping habits and adjust them so teens get additional sleep. Teens must have more sleep to stay alert, make sound judgments and maintain clear thinking and quick reflexes when driving. Look for warning signs of sleep deprivation.  For example, your teen may be sleep deprived if he or she can’t wake up in the morning, is irritable late in the day, falls asleep spontaneously during the day or sleeps at great length on weekends.

While that might sound like a description of most teens most of the time, it could be the gap in their sleep hours versus what they require that is at the heart of a lot of tragic adolescent behavior. And the driving danger is clear. Drowsy driving is a principle cause of traffic crashes each year, and young drivers are particularly vulnerable since they could be operating most of the time on much less sleep than they need.

So what can you do? An important step is reworking your teens’ schedules so they can accomplish what they need and want to accomplish while still getting proper amounts of sleep -- and that is more sleep than required by the typical adult parent. It’s important for both parents and teens to recognize the signs of fatigue and change daily schedules to allow for healthier sleep cycles.

It won’t be easy, because teens have a lot to keep them up on school nights. But you can help your children build good time management skills. Encourage teens to estimate how long tasks will take and plan realistically to complete them. Get them to start early and avoid procrastination. Establishing a reasonable bedtime and sticking to it can go a long way in assuring that teens get the sleep they need. Create a bedtime routine that winds down the pace. For example, the Mayo Clinic suggests a warm bath or shower, a book, relaxing activities and for 30 minutes before lights out no loud music, video games, phone calls or Internet use. Eliminate caffeinated drinks in the evening, and make sure your teens complete their exercise and sports programs well before bedtime.

A well-rested teen is a safer teen. And a well-rested teen isn’t as likely to be cranky or obstinate, either. For some, sleep is -- next to love -- the best medicine.