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Teens May Face Safety Risk When Classes Start Early
Study suggests sleep deprivation plays role in car crash rate

Teens May Face Safety Risk When Classes Start Early

(HealthDay News) -- Falling asleep in class or not doing well on a test might not be all that awaits teens who start their school days at an early hour.

Researchers have linked early start times to an increased risk for car crashes, too.

The study, which involved two Virginia schools with different start times, found an association between earlier classes and more accidents among sleep-deprived students.

"Teenagers need over nine hours sleep a night, and it looks like a large number of teens don't get sufficient sleep," Dr. Robert Vorona, an associate professor of internal medicine in the sleep medicine division at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va., and an author of the study, told HealthDay. "Part of that relates to the time that high schools begin."

"Lack of sleep has negative consequences for teens," he said. "And some data show that younger drivers are more likely to have crashes when they have inadequate sleep."

The study compared crash rates in 2008 for high school students with varying school starting times in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, two adjacent cities with similar demographics.

Chesapeake, where high school classes started at 8:40 a.m., had about 46 crashes for every 1,000 teen drivers, compared with 65 crashes per 1,000 teen drivers in Virginia Beach, where classes started at 7:20 a.m.

The statistics are significant, Vorona said, representing more than a 40 percent difference.

Though the study didn't prove that starting classes 80 minutes later was the reason for the lower accident rate, the researchers pointed out that changing class start times is something school systems could do to address the safety risk.

Teenagers go to bed late, they said, so adjusting the time they have to get up in the morning should help ease their morning grogginess. And that, Vorona said, would undoubtedly affect other areas of their life as well, calling for research on how school start times affect teenagers' moods, tardiness and academic performance.

"If you think about something like calculus, we're asking teens to perform complicated mental functions when their minds are probably not fully alert yet," he said.

Dr. Barbara Phillips, of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, agreed.

Teens are "biologically programmed" to get sleepy and wake up later than adults, said Phillips, a professor in the school's pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine divisions. "They truly can't help it. They're just not going to get sleepy at 10 p.m., so it's hard for them to get the eight to 10 hours of sleep they need to get when they have to catch the 7:30 bus."

While waiting for change to occur, though, teens can take a number of steps to get enough sleep to be alert in the morning. The American Psychological Association suggests:

  • Developing a consistent bedtime routine.
  • Going to bed at the same time each night.
  • Waking up without an alarm clock.
  • Avoiding caffeine after 2 p.m.
  • Not drinking alcohol within three hours of bedtime.
  • Trying to go to bed a little earlier than normal each night.
  • Taking a power nap of no longer than 20 minutes during the day, if needed.

On the Web

To learn more about teens and sleep, check out information from the Nemours Foundation.

SOURCES: HealthDay News; Robert Vorona, M.D., associate professor, division of sleep medicine, Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, Va.; Barbara Phillips, M.D., professor, division of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine, University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Lexington, Ky.; American Psychological Association (www.apa.org)

Author: Anne Thompson

Publication Date: July 31, 2011


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