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Safety Experts Focus on New Risk to Young Drivers: Lack of Sleep

Aired March 28, 2000 - 1:31 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: In health news today, safety experts are focusing on a new risk to young drivers: lack of sleep.

CNN medical correspondent Eileen O'Connor reports on why teens are so tired and why so little has been done about it until now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Zach Conrad is a fairly typical 16-year-old, putting in a couple of hours of baseball practice after a full day of school, driving home, and time for a quick dinner before it's back to the books. It will be after 11:00 before Zach goes to sleep. Six hours later, he'll be up to go back to school.

His lack of sleep and the driving he has to do to keep up his hectic schedule has his mom worried.

DR. DEBORAH PERMUT: Among other driving issues, driving when he's tired or sleepy is a concern of mine, so we've talked about that.

O'CONNOR: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates 1,500 people are killed in accidents caused by drivers impaired by fatigue every year. Another 40 to 70,000 are injured, figures NHITSA says are almost certainly underestimated.

ROSE MCMURRY, NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMINISTRATION: It's very difficult to measure. It's very difficult to detect. And, as I mentioned, most people do not report the fact when they have a crash that they believe that drowsiness was a contributing cause.

O'CONNOR: Fifty-five percent of these accidents happen to those under the age of 26. Because they're still growing physically, sleep experts say teenagers need more sleep than adults. In addition, their sleep rhythms change, making it hard for them to fall asleep until late at night, while school demands an earlier wake-up call.

Yet it's a hazard few parents discuss with their new drivers.

DARRELL DROWBNICK, NATIONAL SLEEP FOUNDATION: About a third of adults talk to their teens about drowsy driving, while over half of them discuss drunk driving. So we think we need to do a lot of -- some extra work on parents and teenagers. O'CONNOR: NHITSA favors expanding graduated license programs which put curfews on younger drivers. A number of school districts and several states have adjusted school starting times for teens. A bill introduced last year in the House would make it easier for more schools to follow suit.

Zach Conrad thinks that's a start.

ZACH CONRAD, STUDENT DRIVER: First period in general -- there's no point in having a first period. Everybody's sleeping. Everybody's tired.

O'CONNOR: All the experts agree, if you can't stop yawning, your eyelids feel heavy and you can't remember driving the last few miles, pull over. You're too drowsy to drive.

Eileen O'Connor, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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