A risk on the roads: Tired teen drivers

Neil Bartlett

Research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that car accidents are three times more likely to happen in the nighttime than the daytime. Put a tired teen driver on the road after dark, and the accident risk goes up even more. In fact, two-thirds of teen car crashes happen between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

For a teen driver, fatigue along with a lack of behind-the-wheel experience, poorly lit roads, glare from oncoming headlights and greatly reduced visibility heighten the possibility of a roadway disaster at night. The National Sleep Foundation says the effect of extreme fatigue on a teen driver is equivalent to driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent. Drowsiness slows a driver’s reaction time, just as alcohol does.

"Teen driver fatigue is a growing problem," the Texas Transportation Institute says, "and is relatively unknown by teens and parents."

Kendall and Charity Fischer of Oxford, Wis., and their teenage son Jeremiah know the danger all too well.

Jeremiah fell asleep at the wheel at 11:30 p.m. one day after working a nine-hour shift and being awake since 5 a.m. In his car, he woke up just before crashing into a telephone pole. Jeremiah suffered only a cut on his arm; his car was totaled. Insurance covered the car, as well as the $1,500 needed to replace the telephone pole.

Jeremiah’s car was insured on his parents’ policy. Even though Jeremiah didn’t get a traffic ticket, the premium to cover his car rose by $40 a month. Before the accident, Jeremiah paid his own car insurance premiums. When the premiums went up, he paid the extra amount.

Today, Jeremiah pays more attention when he's feeling tired behind the wheel.

“I do something to help keep me awake,” Jeremiah says. “When I feel tired, I pull over. I might stop and take a nap.”

In a 2011 study by Liberty Mutual and SADD (Student Against Destructive Decisions), 67 percent of teens said their driving habits changed after a crash.

One way to alleviate the problem of fatigued teen drivers is for them to get more sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends teens sleep at least 9.25 hours a day, yet the average American teen is getting just 6.9 hours of shut-eye. Thirty percent of teens report they fall asleep in class at least once a week, the foundation says.

“Teenagers are going nonstop,” Charity Fischer says.

Teen drivers who sleep less than eight hours a day are one-third more likely to crash than those who sleep at least eight hours a day, according to a study published in 2008 in Accident Analysis & Prevention, a scientific journal.

Aside from encouraging your teen driver to snooze more, there are things you can do to ease the pain of being the parent of a teenage driver:

  • If possible, keep your teen driver on your existing car insurance policy. Ryan Hanley, an insurance agent at The Murray Group in Albany, N.Y., says rates will be much lower if you go that route rather than having a policy solely for the teen driver. If you do add a teen driver to your policy, you may want to boost your liability limits, Hanley says.
  • Remember that car insurance premiums are tied to the type of vehicle driven. Expect to pay more for insurance if your son or daughter is driving a convertible or a high-performance car and less if your kid's driving to work or school in an older car.
  • Insurance companies often give discounts to teen drivers with good driving records or good grades.
  • Since insurance companies vary in the premium amounts charged for teen drivers, you should compare car insurance quotes from several carriers to get the best rate possible.

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