Research reinforces link between increase in teen driver crashes and early high school start times

Story Date: Fri, 14 Nov 2014 17:16:00 EST

A new study adds further evidence that early high school start times can be problematic for teen drivers.

In the second study of its type, researchers from Eastern Virginia Medical School, Old Dominion University and Virginia Commonwealth University compared auto crash rates over two years in Chesterfield and Henrico counties. The adjoining counties in Central Virginia begin their high school classes nearly one and a half hours apart. Chesterfield County, where schools begin at 7:20 a.m., had a significantly higher rate of crashes among teen drivers than did teens in Henrico County where high schools begin at 8:45 a.m.

There was no discernable difference in congestion or crash rates among adult drivers in the two jurisdictions.

The findings closely resemble those from a 2011 study of teen drivers in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach. Robert Vorona, MD, a sleep specialist and Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at EVMS, was principal investigator and lead author on both studies. The latest study will appear in the Nov. 15 issue of Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

“More and more data suggest that insufficient sleep is common in our teens and that early high school start times contribute to teens’ reduced sleep,” says Dr. Vorona. “Insufficient sleep appears to have deleterious consequences such as decrements in mood and increased risk-taking, impaired academics and increased crash rates.”

Mariana Szklo-Coxe, PhD, MHS, Associate Professor in the School of Community and Environmental Health at Old Dominion University, worked alongside Dr. Vorona on both studies.

“We believe our results and conclusions regarding increased teen car crashes in counties with earlier school start times are strengthened,” Dr. Szklo-Coxe says, “as this is a replication study and in light of the stability of our findings over four sequential years.”

The study is the latest to suggest that early school start times are challenging for teens. As a result, a growing number of school systems are rethinking their early high school start times.

“We hope that our study helps the decision-makers as they weigh the pros and cons of changing high school start times — a complicated and at times rather contentious issue,” Dr. Vorona says.

Data for both studies came from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Among other things, the study also reviewed police-reported crash causes that showed significantly more instances where teen drivers from Chesterfield ran off the road to the right — a common finding in crashes where inadequate sleep is suspected.

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