Study: To Cut Teen Car Crashes, Start School Later In The Day

November 24, 2014

It's no secret that teenagers are more prone to auto accidents than older drivers. That's largely why teen motorists are so expensive to insure.

We usually attribute younger drivers' high collision rates to their lack of experience, or perhaps their text-friendly lifestyles. But the New York Times reports that a key factor contributing to the rate of teenage auto accidents may be the time that the school day begins.

That suggestion comes via a new study that examined teen auto accident rates in two Virginia counties. Dr. Robert D. Vorona and his colleagues studied crash data for 2009-2010 and learned that the rate of auto accidents among 16-to-18-year-olds in Chesterfield County, Virginia was 48.8 per thousand residents. In neighboring Henrico County, however, the rate was significantly lower: 37.9 teen accidents per thousand residents. 

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Vorona and his team then looked at data from 2010-2011 to ensure that the previous year wasn't an aberration. It wasn't: there were 51.9 teen accidents per thousand residents in Chesterfield County, compared with 44.2 in Henrico County. (For reference, the accident rate among adult drivers for both years was between 13 and 14 per thousand residents in both counties.)

WHAT'S THE DEAL?

How could Vorona and his peers explain the dramatic difference in rates? School start times may be a clue. In Henrico County, high school classes began at 8:45am. In Chesterfield County, however, where accidents were significantly more common, the school day began at 7:20am.

The implication is that teens in Chesterfield County are sleep-deprived, and that's what's causing trouble. And it's not necessarily the teens' fault: in addition to acne, vocal changes, and growth spurts, numerous studies have shown that teenagers suffer from disruption of their circadian rhythm -- essentially, their sleep schedule. They get sleepy later at night than they did before the onset of puberty, and they're less sensitive to sunlight, too, meaning that it's harder for them to wake up early.

That's at odds with school schedules like those in Chesterfield County, which are calibrated to adult sleep schedules, when the body has fallen back into a "normal" sleep pattern. Simply put, such schedules don't account for teen sleeping habits, meaning that teens adhering to those schedules are more likely to be sleep-deprived and, in turn, more prone to accidents behind the wheel.

Vorona admits that his study is by no means conclusive. It didn't examine distances teens drove to school, texting habits, the cars they owned, or a host of other factors that might've contributed to the discrepancy. 

Still, it's an interesting hypothesis -- one that could upend our thoughts about teen drivers and education, too. Let's hope Vorona and his peers devote more study to the matter down the road.

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