Later School Start Times, Fewer Car Collisions?

It’s unfortunate but true – tens of thousands of Americans are involved in car accidents every year. By extension, many teenagers annually fall victim to such collisions. According to a recent study, opening schools later in the morning could protect the lives of teenage drivers.

Turning Back the Clock

Published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, this report focused on car accidents in Fairfax County, Virginia. To do this, the team relied on accident reports collected by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, as well as data amassed by the Fairfax County Youth Survey. 

The study looked at the 2014-2015 and the 2015-2016 school years. During the latter year, the start time for county schools was pushed back by 50 minutes. Specifically, school start times were moved from 7:20am to 8:10am. 

The authors found that this change appeared to cut down on the frequency of traffic accidents. Collisions involving alcohol dropped by 20 percent, while this same period also saw distracted-driving accidents fall by 9 percent. Overall, the study concluded that all traffic accidents involving teen drivers declined by five percent.

The Importance of Sleep

So what explains these encouraging numbers? A likely explanation is that later start times allow for more sleep for students. Study author Dr. Judith Owens, MPH, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of sleep medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, stated that “accidental injuries including motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of deaths of adolescents in the U.S., and anything we can do to mitigate that risk should be considered. We know from independent data sources that after a change in school start times students get more sleep, which leads to multiple benefits, not just for individuals but also in terms of huge economic implications.”

It bears mentioning that the American Academy of Sleep Medicine is in favor of later school start times, arguing that start times of 8:30 a.m. not only improve student performance, but promote good health amongst middle and high school students.

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