Crash risk among young drivers linked to less sleep: new study

Young drivers who do not sleep enough are at significant risk of having a car crash, according to a new study published today in JAMA Paediatrics. Sleeping less on weekends puts young drivers at greater risk of having a car crash at night, as well as having an increased chance of run-off-road crashes.

The Australian study, the first of its kind, examined the association between sleep and motor vehicle crashes in more than 20,000 newly licensed drivers aged 17 - 24 years.

Lead researcher, Associate Professor Alexandra Martiniuk of The George Institute for Global Health and The University of Sydney, says it does not take drastic sleep deprivation to impact young driver safety.

“Sleeping six hours a night is enough to put young drivers at significant risk of having a car crash. With work, study and social commitments, especially on weekends, it is easy to miss out on the extra hours of sleep they need,” Associate Professor Alexandra Martiniuk.

“The findings point to the urgent need for education campaigns targeting young drivers, especially the newly licensed, around the importance of sleep and road safety.”

Sleepiness is associated with lapses in attention, slowed reaction time, impairments in judgment, difficulty regulating emotions including increased aggression, and risky behaviour; effects that are also magnified by alcohol consumption.

Australian data shows that although only 20% of young adults’ driving occurs at night yet 60% of young driver deaths happen at night.

Senior author of the study, Professor Rebecca Ivers of The George Institute and The University of Sydney and member of the NSW Road Safety Advisory Council, says pro-actively managing sleeping habits is critical to preventing what can be devastating crashes involving young people.  

“We hope the findings of this study will raise awareness in the community and among policy makers about the specific risks for young drivers when it comes to sleep,” Professor Ivers said.

“Ensuring young drivers have easy access to alternatives to driving, such as public transport, and strategies for managing the balance between awake time and sleep, are one part of the equation.  

“Other strategies such as road design, having rest breaks on long trips and avoiding night time driving where possible are equally important.”

Lifestyle factors are among the contributing causes of less sleep in adolescents and young adults, such academic responsibilities, socialisation, and an increased use of electronic communication devices.

Every day, more than 3000 people die in motor vehicle crashes around the world amounting to more than 1.3 million motor vehicle–related deaths; and between 20 million and 50 million more are injured and often left disabled for life.

Motor vehicle crashes have a huge economic impact worldwide, responsible for up to 3% of a country’s gross national product costs per year.