Most parents are already aware that the single biggest risk to their teenager's lives is driving. In 2013, six kids between the ages of 16 and 19 a day were killed in car collisions, and more than 240,000 were treated in emergency rooms because of their injuries. Teenagers are more likely than any other age group to be in a fatal car crash, even when blood alcohol content is considered.

There are many factors cited for why teenagers are so likely to be in an automobile collision, such as low seat belt use, a tendency to drive too fast, and a sense of "invincibility." One factor that doesn't get enough attention, and which parents can influence, is teenager's sleep patterns.

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There are several sleep disorders that can disproportionately affect teenagers, such as circadian rhythm disorders. Instead of being able to go to sleep at the usual evening time, teenagers are more likely to describe themselves as night owls and stay up until very late in the evening. If they are able to sleep for the full eight hours or so that their bodies tend to need, then they are likely to be perfectly attentive and well rested, but when they need to wake up in time for an early start to the school day, they tend to struggle with daytime exhaustion, which can result in falling asleep at the wheel in the afternoons or evenings as they drive home from after school activities.

Teenagers can also be affected by sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA. When someone has OSA, even though they may be in bed for a full eight hours, they tend to wake up feeling unrested, sometimes even more tired than they were when they laid down. There are other sleep disorders which have their onset during teenage years and can add to the sleepiness. These include delayed sleep phase syndrome, narcolepsy and idiopathic hypersomnia. Excessive daytime sleepiness increases the risk of motor accidents by 5-10 times. In addition, patients with untreated sleep disorders have a higher risk of getting into a fatal or disabling crash.

Over time, the sleep debt that results from consistently poor sleep can cause aggressive behavior at school or home, difficulty with learning or retaining information, and poor judgment in social situations. Kids with poor sleep may find that they struggle in school, see their grades decline, or struggle to perform at their best in sports or other after school activities. 

Teenagers can also suffer from depression or anxiety, which complicate sleep patterns. The medicines that treat these mental health conditions can also interrupt sleep. Finally, many kids with epilepsy experience their first seizures during their teen years; kids who take two or more medicines to control their epilepsy are at particular risk of developing OSA.


To keep their teenagers safe, parents should remind kids never to drive after consuming drugs or alcohol, to use their seat belts, and to avoid distractions on the road. They should also make sure their kids get a solid night of sleep. Occasional daytime sleepiness is understandable, but parents should look out of the warning signs of sleep disorders: 

•    Consistent and regular snoring
•    Breathing pauses during sleep
•    Noticeable daytime tiredness on a regular basis
•    Sudden changes in mood or demeanor
•    Sudden declines in social behavior or grade performance

If your teen shows these warning signs, call our clinic to schedule a sleep evaluation with a pediatric sleep specialist. It may be the most important thing you do to keep your child safe on the road.