Study: Later school bell cuts teen crashes

Posted July 4, 2016

Teen driver generic

— New research suggests later school start times could be safer for teen drivers – in the afternoon.

Robert Foss studies teen driving at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, where he is the senior research scientist. Drowsy driving is a big problem for young drivers, he said, because biology shows they need more sleep than adults.

"They need to be asleep early in the morning, like between 6 and 7 a.m.," Foss said.

Many high schools start as early as 7 a.m., however, meaning that teens have to fight their own biology and get up when their bodies need to be asleep. So, Foss decided to see if later school start times would have any effect on teen driving safety.

Researchers found a 14 percent drop in crashes involving teen drivers in Forsyth County after the school district pushed high school start times from 7:30 to 8:45 a.m. in 2003. No such declines were noted in Mecklenburg or Wake counties, where most high schools started between 7:15 and 7:30 a.m.

Yet, the shift in start times in Forsyth County only pushed morning crashes back an hour, while early afternoon crashes dropped significantly. Researchers suggested that later dismissal times reduced the amount of time teens were on the road in the afternoon.

"It's not the reason we suspected, but for another perfectly meaningful and legitimate reason," Foss said.

Other research points to academic and behavioral improvements among teenagers when they start school later in the morning, he added.

Most Wake County high schools still start class around 7:30 a.m., but school district spokeswoman Heather Lawing said officials wouldn't make a decision to adjust bell schedules based on one study.

"We don't make any decisions lightly. We try to look at best practices, best research, and make our decisions based on those best practices," Lawing said.

"Someone else needs to do a similarly thorough study to see if they see the same kind of effects," Foss said. "I suspect they will."


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